Trump Might Have Just Opened the California Coast to More Oil Drilling

by Tim Donaghy

May 5, 2017

Last Friday, Donald Trump signed an executive order that could expand offshore oil and gas drilling along America’s coastlines. This move could even bring oil rigs to the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington, where new drilling hasn’t been allowed for decades.

Clean-up workers pass plastic bags full of oily debris from Refugio State Beach near Goleta after a 24-inch underground pipeline broke and leaked into a culvert leading to the Pacific Ocean. Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline said up to 105,000 gallons of oil were released before the pipeline was shut down.

© Jonathan Alcorn / Greenpeace

In 1969, an explosion at a Unocal rig off the coast of Santa Barbara spilled 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean, created a 35-mile-long oil slick, and opened the eyes of many Californians to the dangers of offshore drilling. Although oil production still takes place on 23 offshore rigs in federal waters off Southern California, no new lease sales have taken place since 1984 and coastal communities and political leaders in the state have long resisted efforts to start up new drilling.

A clean-up worker walks across oil-covered Refugio State Beach near Goleta after a 24-inch underground oil pipeline broke and leaked into a culvert leading to the ocean. Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline said up to 105,000 gallons of oil were released before the pipeline was shut down.

The 1969 spill was the nation’s worst until the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska 20 years later. In May 2015, Santa Barbara was hit again, when more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from an onshore pipeline and flowed down a culvert into the ocean, causing a nine-mile oil slick and polluting Refugio State Beach.

Despite this, the oil industry has consistently lobbied to open up the Pacific coast to new oil drilling. Oil and gas deposits offshore from some of California’s most beloved places — from Mendocino to Point Reyes to Big Sur to Santa Barbara — could be the next targets for oil companies’ increasingly desperate search for new reserves to replace what they burn.

But opening up new areas to risky oil drilling at a time when we need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels is the worst possible decision. So naturally, Trump was all over it.

What Trump’s Executive Order Means

Trump’s Executive Order instructs the Department of the Interior to revoke the permanent protections President Obama put in place for the Arctic and the Atlantic and begin drafting a new Five-Year Plan to determine which offshore areas should be open to oil drilling. This review could even threaten existing National Marine Sanctuaries such as those protecting California’s Monterey Bay or the Channel Islands. Trump also ordered a review of several safety regulations adopted in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

We will have to wait to see the contents of this new Five-Year Plan, but it seems likely that at a minimum it will continue oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico (where residents have long called for no new leases), while adding new lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas north of Alaska as well as possible sales along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

As Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said, “We’re going to look at everything.” When asked directly, Zinke did not rule out drilling in the Pacific.

Where is the oil, and how much is there?

Source: BOEM

If the Pacific is opened up for new leasing, it’s likely that oil companies will push for seismic testing to obtain more detailed maps of where to drill. But for now, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) estimates of oil and gas resources can tell us where oil companies might focus their attention.

Most federal oil production has been centered near Santa Barbara, but California’s coastline is estimated to contain significant oil reserves. Ocean basins off the coasts of Mendocino, San Francisco, Big Sur, Santa Barbara, and San Diego are each estimated to contain more than 1 billion barrels of oil (see map). The entire Pacific coast region contains around 10 billion barrels of oil.

This expanse of coastline is home to numerous communities who rely on tourism and fishing; the California coast is largely a public space open to anyone who wants to hop in the car and head to the beach. The offshore waters are home to whales, salmon, otters, sea lions, seabirds, forests of giant kelp, beds of deep-water coral, and several threatened or endangered species. Large sections of the near-shore areas are protected as National Marine Sanctuaries, National Monuments, and other parks.


Who wants to drill?

While there’s less oil off the California coast than in the Arctic or Gulf of Mexico, that hasn’t stopped oil companies from looking for an opening.

Chevron — headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area — listed access to Pacific leases among its priorities just last year. ConocoPhillips, Noble Energy, and Statoil also explicitly called for expanded access and leasing in the Pacific, as did the Koch brothers-funded American Energy Alliance.

And numerous oil companies and industry associations, led by the American Petroleum Institute, called for all federal offshore waters to be on the table for fossil fuel leasing.

Resist: Our Oceans Are Not a Sacrifice Zone

Opening up the Pacific to new oil and gas leasing is not a foregone conclusion. Secretary Zinke indicated that he was aware of how unpopular the idea is in California, and California politicians have lined up to drive that point home. The governors of California, Oregon and Washington issued a joint statement in opposition. Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “California will fight this every step of the way. We do not want oil drilling off our coast. Period.”

But of course, Trump doesn’t often heed democratic ideals or reasonable arguments, so it will be up to all of us to resist this attack on our climate and coasts. Tell the Interior Department to keep our public lands and waters safe from drilling today!

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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