Politics & Government

Not all California lawmakers oppose offshore drilling

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from California's Central Valley, both Republicans and Democrats, have broken with most of the state's congressional delegation to back offshore oil and gas drilling, exemplifying once more the Valley's distinctive political culture.

Call it, in this case, Kern County values.

Visalia Republican Devin Nunes and Fresno Democrat Jim Costa are each maneuvering for energy influence in their respective parties. Both back separate comprehensive energy bills that emphasize support for offshore oil and gas drilling.

Neither bill will become law this Congress. Time is too short, election-year dynamics too partisan and political resistance too strong, especially from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian. But with gas prices bouncing above $4 a gallon, both lawmakers think political momentum is on their side.

"At some point, Congress has to consider drilling for oil if we want to get prices down," Nunes said.

Nunes crafted a big energy bill that among many other provisions lifts the 27-year-old moratorium on new Outer Continental Shelf drilling. The bill retains a ban up to 25 miles offshore. Drilling could occur in the 25- to 50-mile zone if a state approved. Drilling would be permitted in the 50- to 100-mile zone unless a state prohibited it.

A new bill introduced by Costa and others late last week likewise lifts the overall federal offshore ban while retaining it for the first 25 miles offshore. States could still choose to retain a ban within the 25- to 50-mile zone. All limits are removed after 50 miles.

If anything, the new bill co-authored by Costa and Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Merced Democrat, is more lenient toward offshore drilling than the Nunes bill. A Democrat from, say, San Francisco could never get away with such a stance. Valley Democrats, though, face a different constituency.

"Valley residents from both parties are not the extremes you see in other parts of the country," Costa's press secretary, Bret Rumbeck, said Wednesday.

Nunes press secretary Andrew House agreed Wednesday that "there is some common ground on some of these issues, like offshore drilling."

Statewide, 43 percent of California residents surveyed in July by the Field Poll agreed more oil drilling should be allowed off the California coast. Reflecting the pinch of higher gas prices, support for offshore drilling has climbed markedly in recent years.

Many Central Valley residents are already on board. A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California released July 30 found that 55 percent of the residents surveyed between Redding and Bakersfield support more drilling off of California's coast. By contrast, 54 percent of San Francisco Bay Area residents surveyed oppose more offshore drilling.

"Democrats and Republicans are not right down party lines on this issue," Pelosi allowed Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "There are regional concerns as well as some people concerned about what this means back home for them. But we have a planet to save."

For Valley lawmakers, the regional concerns include a homegrown oil-and-gas industry with considerable political clout.

Wells in Kern, Tulare and Inyo counties produced 170 million barrels of oil in 2006, according to the California Department of Conservation. Wells in the district between Stanislaus and Fresno counties produced 6.4 million barrels, primarily around Coalinga.

While not as dominant as the Valley's agricultural sector, the energy industry makes its voice heard. Oil and gas interests contributed $23,750 to Costa's 2006 re-election campaign and $24,000 to Nunes' campaign, records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show.

Other Democratic lawmakers from energy producing states like Louisiana and Oklahoma have likewise endorsed expanded offshore drilling. All told, 119 House members -- including 28 Democrats -- have co-sponsored the energy legislation supported by Costa. Spanning 42 pages, the bill covers much more than offshore drilling.

"We need all the energy tools in our toolbox to help reduce our need for foreign oil, along with protecting our environment," Costa said.