Governor opposes any new offshore oil drilling

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The California governor’s office says the federal government should buy back leases and allow no more drilling northward of Point Mugu. No stand taken on liquefied natural gas terminals proposed for California waters.

By Hans Laetz/Special to The Malibu Times

New attempts to add offshore oil rigs in California coastal waters are running into the Terminator, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is making it clear he opposes new pro-drilling initiatives coming from the oil industry, the White House and Congress.

The efforts to drill for new sources of oil and natural gas off the California coast have been publicized at the same time that work continues behind the scenes on plans for a pair of liquefied natural gas receiving terminals proposed for the Malibu and Oxnard shores.

While the governor hasn’t taken a stand on the LNG terminals yet, a spokesman issued a quick and firm “absolutely not” to the pressure from the oil industry and Washington supporters for more California offshore oil.

“No new drilling. That’s been the governor’s stand from day one,” Sandy Cooney, spokesperson for the California Resources Agency, told The Malibu Times in a telephone interview Friday.

Cooney pointed to a letter sent last month from the governor’s office to California’s congressional delegation, which repeats Schwarzenegger’s opposition to any moves to weaken the 1982 federal moratorium on new drilling off California.

The letter was sent after the White House-through the Energy Department-asked California’s governor for his stand on the longstanding new drilling ban, Cooney said.

“There is blood in the water and now the sharks are circling,” said Environment California Legislative Director Dan Jacobson.

“The oil lobby got a victory in the Arctic and now they are confidant, I am sure, to open up the California coast,” he said in a telephone interview from Sacramento.

But Jacobson said Schwarzenegger’s environmental record is solid. “To date, the Schwarzenegger administration has been incredibly clear in its opposition to any new oil drilling off the coast,” he said.

The momentum for new offshore drilling in California has hit Capitol Hill and the national press, spurred on by national security worries and record-high crude oil and natural gas prices. A pair of senators last week introduced a bill to speed oil leasing off the Florida and California coasts, and to remove some local oversight on LNG terminal siting and environmental rules.

Energy industry observers say California is next for new oil and gas development, and were quoted in an Associated Press article as advocating new drilling at oil-rich lease tracts up the coast from Malibu.

Oil leases in Santa Monica Bay were made permanently impossible when the federal government withdrew those tracts in 1974. That action occurred in the environmental and political uproar sparked by the Union Oil Company rig that blew out in the Santa Barbara Channel and soaked the coastline with oil in 1969.

The 1969 spill caused oil to wash ashore as far south as San Diego. Heavy soaking of the Santa Barbara and Ventura coasts killed thousands of birds and animals and was viewed as the impetus for the environmental movement that swept the nation in the 1970s.

Although oil production continues from two dozen Santa Barbara Channel oil platforms in place before 1969, new drilling projects have been temporarily on hold. But 37 large lease areas off the coast from Point Mugu northwest to Santa Maria were leased to oil companies before Congress put the brakes on new leasing in 1984.

Last month, environmentalists sued the Bush Administration, which has green-lighted new oil rigs in those 37 leases from Point Mugu north. So far, courts have sided with Santa Barbara anti-drilling groups, but the potential of new drilling platforms is not out of the question like it is in Santa Monica Bay.

The federal government should “buy back the leases and [allow] no more. The governor has made that clear from day one,” said Cooney, who is Schwarzenegger’s point man at the agency that oversees all of the state’s natural resource agencies. A similar buyback occurred in Florida in 2002, but has never occurred on the West Coast.

Last week, news accounts from Washington reported that the Interior Department plans to reopen oil and gas drilling leases in Florida, where 3 million acres of offshore ocean are now off-limits. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been able to forestall energy drilling off Florida, but he leaves office in 2007.

Meanwhile, secret work continues as federal officials seek additional information from an Australian oil conglomerate seeking to build a floating liquefied natural gas terminal 14 miles out to sea from Malibu’s western end.

BHP Billiton proposes to permanently station a Queen Mary-sized ship with three large domed storage tanks, with the capacity to store the equivalent of 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas, in 2,700 feet of water just south of the heavily traveled cargo shipping lanes. If built, at least one supertanker at all times would be tied to the pivoting ship, offloading millions of tons of highly pressurized liquefied gas imported from Malaysia or other countries where BHP Billiton is a major oil and gas producer.

The U.S. Coast Guard has temporarily stopped the project’s review process while the company answers new questions about security, biological impacts, air pollution and other matters, said BHP Billiton spokesperson Kathleen Hann.

“It is not unusual for a large project to raise questions like this,” she said.

Asked what the nature of the Coast Guard inquiries are, she allowed they are “all over the map, related to the project description, environmental issues, air and water pollution impacts, safety issues and the like.”

Neither BHP Billiton nor the Coast Guard has disclosed specific information about the security questions or other government questions at this time. Similar plants being considered for Alabama and Long Island have prompted publicized terrorism fears, and the Coast Guard is also asking similar questions there.

Critics say the Coast Guard may be asking for more information related to the EIR’s estimate of a low potential death toll in a catastrophic failure or terrorist attack. In past speeches, the Coast Guard said it would be asking questions about ship traffic, rough weather and operational safety issues for operating LNG terminals in deep water.

The Malibu coast plant is one of five LNG terminals planned for the Southern California and Baja California coasts. A similar plant is considered for an obsolete oil-drilling platform off Oxnard, and one is also proposed for the Port of Long Beach. Sempra Energy has started construction at its plant near Ensenada, another plant is also proposed for the Baja coast, and Calpine wants to build one in Oregon.

Some energy industry analysts say they are not sure the market can support all 45 LNG terminals being proposed in the entire nation.