All-Star Panel of Experts Addresses How to Stop Offshore Drilling Leases in 2019

Resident Scott Tallal captured this image of squid fishing boats off the coast of El Matador Beach in Malibu just after sunset in late December. 

President Donald Trump’s Executive Order to open nearly all of the coastal U.S. to offshore oil and gas drilling beginning in 2019, including the entire California coast, was a call to action for the Malibu Township Council (MTC). The longtime activist group brought together a panel of six experts in a public forum at City Hall last Saturday to discuss the likelihood of Trump’s directive actually occurring in 2019 and how to fight it. 

One takeaway point is that as long as the price of oil stays below $50 a barrel, it isn’t worth the expense for most energy companies to undertake expensive offshore drilling. Proponents of the move believe increasing offshore drilling across the United States will provide an economic boost and allow the U.S. to be more self-sufficient. 

If the price of oil goes up and energy companies do try to pursue offshore drilling, Congressman Ted Lieu, State Senator Henry Stern’s office and Chair of the California Coastal Commission (CCC) Dayna Bochco all cited grounds for litigation and legal roadblocks that could keep the deals tied up in court for many years. 

The forum was moderated by MTC President Richard Lawrence and introduced by City Council Member Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner. 

Though the event was nonpartisan and open to the public, no one attending the forum appeared to be in favor of looking at offshore oil rigs off the Malibu coast—which would potentially be both visible on the horizon and present a risk of devastating oil spills.

Congressman Lieu, Malibu’s representative since 2014 and an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, spoke first. He mentioned U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the overseer of any offshore leasing program.

“I served with Zinke in Congress, and he’s disappointed me and done stupid things like … selling off federal lands,” Lieu said. “He’s opening up 90 percent of the continental shelf to oil drilling, but then exempted the state of Florida. He said the reason he did that was because ‘local officials told me not to do it,’ and ‘Florida’s coast was a big contributor to their economy.’ Guess what?  California’s is even bigger.”

Lieu, who graduated magna cum laude with a law degree from Georgetown University, said, “Under no legal standard can you exempt Florida and not exempt California. He’ll lose a lawsuit.” 

Jeremy Wolf, representing State Senator Henry Stern, said California banned all offshore drilling in 1994 for three miles out—as far the state’s jurisdiction goes. 

“SB 834 prohibits the State Lands Commission from approving any new structures to support oil development; essentially not allowing any new pipelines,” Wolf said. “Offshore oil would have to be transferred to tankers, which is an expensive process.”

In addition, Wolf mentioned the state senate had passed a resolution (SR-73) specifically to address Trump’s directive just last month, opposing the federal government’s five-year leasing program and detailing the fact that 500,000 jobs rely on the coast and the fishing industry, which they want to safeguard and protect. 

CCC Chair Bochco said Trump wants a five-year offshore lease plan from 2019 to 2024, but that the CCC can’t get involved until “the feds actually announce the lease sale.”

She explained the complicated ways in which the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) and California’s Coastal Act work together to give the Coastal Commission a say about the sale of federal leases.

“We’re the only state agency with any jurisdiction over federal waters,” Bochco explained. “We would have to see if their activities conflicted with the state’s Coastal Act.” 

She also addressed the problems associated with additional offshore drilling. 

“The biggest problems are leaks and spills,” she said. “Every production platform leaks, and sometimes those leaks create an enormous mess that affects marine life and coastal access.”

“We’re the last state that would want nonrenewable energy pumped in here,” Bochco added.

“If the U.S. government did decide to sell the leases, we’d sue in federal court,” Bochco said. “But the president can override the court’s decision if he decides the leases are in the country’s national interests under the CZMA. That’s what [President George W.] Bush used to permit Navy sonar tests [which can be devastating to marine mammals].”

“If the Coastal Commission objects to the drilling and transport of oil, we can also go to the Secretary of Commerce,” Bochco said. “We can make it very expensive for any oil company to fight the state. It may not be practical for them to even try.”

Three nonprofit organizations made a joint presentation on the negative effects of offshore drilling and oil production, and actions that individuals can take:  Dr. Chad Nelsen—Surfrider Foundation, Damon Nagami—Natural Resources Defense Council and Nancy Hastings—Oceana.