The Trump administration’s plans to open 90 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and gas reserves for future possible exploration, including off the Central Coast, is “a threat that we need to take very serious,” a leader of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the Surfrider Foundation said.
“It’s not something that we can be sort of casual about,” said Charles Varni, a coordinator of Surfrider’s STOP Climate Change campaign. “We need to begin organizing and mobilizing.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday announced that the oil and gas leasing program for 2019-24 proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history. Just because an area is included in the plan does not mean it will be offered in a lease sale, he said.
There have been no sales in the Pacific Region since 1984.
While California leaders dug in their heels — Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom all issued statements reinforcing their commitment to use state regulations to keep California’s shores closed to offshore development — Varni said he is concerned with federal preemption.
He fears the federal government could supersede state and local protections, such as the California Clean Coast Act and San Luis Obispo County’s Meaure A, which bans any onshore infrastructure to support offshore oil or gas development.
The director of the local Sierra Club chapter agreed that local protections have no authority over drilling in federal waters.
“Oil rigs in waters offshore of SLO County can get around the local ordinance by routing their pipelines to existing onshore facilities in Santa Barbara,” said Andrew Christie of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club.
If that were to happen, Varni said would-be developers should expect to see an uprising.
“If the political process (to prevent local leases) doesn’t work, I think you’ll see a citizen’s resistance of a scale that probably hasn’t been seen in the history of the environmental movement. People won’t stand for it,” Varni said.
Central Coast oil spills prompt past resistance
Environmentalists point to a history of oil spills on the Central Coast as evidence that offshore drilling directly threatens coastal communities and marine life, explaining many Californians’ opposition to offshore drilling.
“In California’s case, tourism, recreation and fishing alone create almost $20 billion in annual revenues and 410,000 jobs, all threatened by the oil spills, pollution and industrialization that come with offshore drilling,” Christie said.
A major, 11-day oil spill off coastal Santa Barbara in 1969 coated miles of beach, killing birds and galvanizing the ecology movement, leading to the creation of Environmental Protection Agency and the founding of Earth Day.
Over a period of multiple decades until 1994, millions of gallons of oil leaked from rusty pipes and settled into sand dunes in Guadalupe. Similarly, a huge toxic lake of crude oil formed from leaks in pipes was discovered in 1989 under the town of Avila Beach.
“The Central Coast knows too well the damage caused by oil spills,” Congressman Salud Carbajal said in response to the federal plans, promising to fight the “misguided” decision. “Our local economies and fragile ocean ecosystems cannot afford another disastrous spill.”
Technology and protections may have improved since those disasters, but Varni and Christie point to the administration’s unraveling of that regulatory work as cause to be critical of any promise of responsible drilling.
“Today’s announcement should also be considered in light of the recent action of Trump’s oil industry-backed appointees moving to revoke drilling safety rules adopted after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster,” Christie said.
“Don’t tell me, ‘We’re going to do this really safe.’ That’s easy to say,” Varni said. “But the record of the Trump administration and of Big Oil has been to fight regulations.”