Republicans push drilling off California coast; Democrats say no

McClatchy NewspapersMay 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — High gas prices have reignited a familiar debate about drilling off California's coast, with everyone playing their usual part and the outcome pretty much predictable.

Republicans urge energy independence. Democrats warn of coastal devastation. And while the House on Wednesday will approve an offshore drilling bill that includes part of California, the effort almost certainly will sputter out on the Senate side of Capitol Hill.

"The purpose of this bill is to send a message to the Republican base ... it's a rallying cry," said Rep. Lois Capps, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, on Tuesday, but "it's not going anywhere in the Senate."

Still, political purpose is being served. With California gasoline prices averaging over $4.20 a gallon, Republicans can mobilize public resentment and distinguish themselves from Democrats. The title of one of the bills being approved Wednesday clarifies the partisan point: it's called the Reversing President Obama's Offshore Moratorium Act.

The new bill expanding drilling off Southern California and other regions will join the vividly titled Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act, approved last week, and the Putting the Gulf of Mexico Back to Work Act, also set for approval this week.

In other words: Hear the theme.

"I think the majority is trying to score political points," Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said Tuesday, "but it's not going to become law."

Democrats, in turn, are sending messages of their own to their environmentalist base. Capps charged that Republicans are "removing all of the protections" for the coast, while Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer declared Republicans "would jeopardize California's ... coastal economy."

Statewide, it's the Democrats who may find the more sympathetic audience. Last July 59 percent of Californians surveyed by the Public Policy Institute of California opposed additional drilling. Thirty-six percent favored more drilling.

New energy production would start sometime after 2015, under the House bill affecting southern California. Consumers would benefit, proponents say.

"If you add to supply, then the price goes down," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, adding that "our thirsty consumers need these things."

Oil experts say, however, that there is ample excess production capacity to pump more oil, weak demand and low utilization rates at U.S. refineries. These factors point to a plentiful supply of oil.

An oil spill in early 1969 off the Santa Barbara coast helped galvanize environmentalists and prompted enduring opposition to offshore drilling in California.

Congress imposed an annual moratorium on new offshore drilling, starting in 1981. Those ended in 2008, leading to the current, slightly more complicated state of affairs.

Since last summer, the Interior Department has issued 52 drilling permits for new offshore wells in shallow water and 10 permits for new deepwater wells. The permits now meet tougher standards imposed after last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Obama administration has, however, banned new drilling off much of the North Atlantic coast and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. There are no plans for new drilling leases off California through at least 2017.

"The president's actions put some of the most promising shallow water energy resources in the world off-limits," the GOP-controlled House Natural Resources Committee stated in its official bill report.

Currently, Exxon Mobil and several other companies have actively producing leases across some 241,000 acres off the Southern California coast, Interior Department records show.

One of the bills set for House approval Wednesday would require the Obama administration to proceed with new offshore oil-and-gas leasing in the areas with the "most prospective oil and gas resources."

The bill specifies that drilling proceed in areas that contain at least 2.5 billion barrels of oil. The Southern California offshore planning area, which extends as far north as San Luis Obispo County, contains at least 3.5 billion barrels of oil. It more likely contains about 5.7 billion barrels, according to Interior Department estimates.

Other drillable offshore regions under the bill would include much of the Gulf of Mexico, areas off Alaska and the North Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic coasts.

( Kevin G. Hall also contributed to this article.)

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