As coastal Republicans in Florida and the Carolinas lobby the Trump administration to exempt their states from new offshore oil drilling plans, their GOP counterparts in California have largely been silent, apparently torn between angering voters at home and upsetting their pro-drilling colleagues in Congress.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has already said he will exempt Florida from expanded offshore oil drilling, after that state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, objected to the Jan. 4 announcement. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican from coastal South Carolina, has been seeking an exemption for his state, and Zinke quickly contacted him after Sanford criticized the decision on CNN.
In California, however, the 14 Republicans in the U.S. House have been cautious on the issue, in part because several face tough 2018 campaigns. Two of those, Ed Royce of Fullerton and Darrell Issa of San Diego County, have already stated they will not seek reelection. Some of Trump’s other policies, such as changes in the new tax law that hurt blue states such as California and New York, are already giving Democrats wedge issues they can use against opponents.
“If there is an endangered species in California, it is the Southern California oceanfront Republican,” said Bill Whalen, the chief speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson and now a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. The demographics are changing in Southern California, and opposition to Trump’s policies, and Trump himself, is hurting GOP prospects in some districts, he said.
So far, Issa is the only California House Republican member to criticize Trump’s drilling plan, which he did six days before announcing he was stepping down. A spokesman for Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, said the congressman was supportive of the proposal, but said he was not available to explain why.
Other GOP lawmakers, including Royce, Mimi Walters of Orange County and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, have not issued statements and their offices did not respond for comment.
Zinke announced his plan on Jan. 4 to offer 47 new offshore leases in federal waters off of Alaska, the west coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. He said the leases would “strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”
Lawmakers in Alaska, Louisiana and other oil-friendly states applauded the plan. But leaders in states dependent on coastal tourism, including California, Oregon and Washington, have harshly criticized it.
If there is an endangered species in California, it is the Southern California oceanfront Republican,
Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution
The Oregon and Washington coasts are not thought to have the geology that would make them attractive for oil extraction. Nonetheless, the Democratic governors of those states have joined California Gov. Jerry Brown in lobbying the White House to exclude them, especially after Zinke said Florida would be exempted.
Last week, 36 House Democrats from California sent Zinke their own letter, urging him to remove California from the offshore drilling plan, noting their state, like Florida, is highly dependent on tourism.
Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat who represents California’s north coast, said organizers of the letter reached out to California Republicans, but none of them agreed to sign. “It has long been known that California Republicans are for offshore oil drilling, plain and simple,” Huffman said Monday.
Not so in Washington state. There, Republicans Dave Reichert and Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents a coastal district, have sent a Zinke letter opposing their state’s inclusion in the plan.
Moreover, GOP lawmakers from California may have played a small role in encouraging Trump’s plans for offshore drilling. On Aug. 16, Walters and Rohrabacher joined more than 100 other House Republicans in co-signing a letter to Zinke supporting a new oil and gas leasing program for the outer continental shelf. In announcing his Jan. 4 plan, Zinke cited this letter, which was also signed by GOP House members Devin Nunes and David Valadao of California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Polls show that a majority of Californians oppose oil drilling off their shorelines, but public opposition has varied over time and is stronger on the coast than inland. Opposition intensified following the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, a disaster that helped spur the modern U.S. environmental movement. In 1994, Gov. Wilson, a Republican, signed legislation banning offshore drilling three miles from California’s shoreline — waters that are under state, not federal, jurisdiction.
Amid rising gasoline prices in 2008, Californians had come to favor new offshore drilling, according to a poll that year by the Public Policy Institute of California. But that support reversed itself following the BP oil spill of 2010. Opposition also flared up following another, much smaller, oil spill in Santa Barbara in 2015.
Now that Issa and Royce have dropped out, some analysts see Walters and Rohrabacher as among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in California. Hillary Clinton won both of their congressional districts — the 45th and 48th — in 2016. Both incumbents face multiple opponents next year, as Democrats pour money into their races.
One day after Zinke made his offshore oil announcement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted Rohrabacher, Walters, Royce and Issa for their “silence” on the issue, their past comments on offshore drilling and campaign contributions they’ve received from the oil industry. “California’s Republican delegation in Washington has a long record of advocating for Big Oil and offshore drilling, rather than those of their constituents,” said the DCCC on its web site.
Whalen, the Hoover Institution fellow, said offshore oil won’t be the driving issue that will decide the fate of GOP incumbents, but it could hurt Walters and Rohrabacher, especially among independent voters. It poses few personal political risks for McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, since his Bakersfield district is known as the “Oil Capital of California.” But it could hurt him in a different way, said Whalen.
“This puts Kevin McCarthy in such a tough spot,” said Whalen. “He’s trying to keep a majority in the House, but even in his own state, he faces a handful of his people being ousted. How does he protect them?”