Ocean waters near Heceta Head lighthouse in Oregon would be among those protected from fossil fuel exploration activity if a bill introduced by West Coast senators becomes law. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.
California’s senior U.S. senator has introduced a bill that would permanently block fossil fuel exploration on the outer continental shelf along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.
The measure, sponsored by veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was introduced Jan. 4.
In her comments on the Senate floor on the day she introduced S.31 Feinstein highlighted the huge economic impact of coastal counties in California, explaining that they produce 80 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, and said the likely close proximity of any drilling to the beaches makes offshore energy exploration too dangerous.
“The fact is that those of us on the Pacific coast do not want any further offshore oil or gas development,” Feinstein said.
Wildlife conservation concerns are a powerful argument against energy exploration off the Pacific Coast. Among the marine animals that may be adversely affected by oil and natural gas drilling are a variety of sea birds and fish, orcas, otters, salmon, seals, sea lions, and migratory whale species (including blue whales).
Those wildlife resources have previously been harmed by oil extraction in the Pacific.
In 1969 a spill near Santa Barbara polluted the Pacific Ocean with about 3.36 million gallons of crude. That incident remains the most severe oil spill in California’s history and the third-most severe spill in American history.
The Santa Barbara oil spill killed thousands of sea birds and many dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions. The mortality rate among small marine organisms in the inter-tidal zone was as high as 90 percent.
This graphic shows the extent of ocean and beach area impacted by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Map courtesy Wikimedia.
Despite the warning provided by the Santa Barbara oil spill, there are still 24 oil drilling platforms operating in ocean areas off the California coast.
In 1994 the Golden State’s legislature largely precluded any future drilling leases in the six kilometer-wide band of Pacific waters under its regulatory control. The California Coastal Sanctuary Act allows leasing only if the “State Lands Commission determines that oil and gas deposits contained in tidelands are being drained by means of wells upon adjacent federal lands and leasing of the tidelands for oil or gas production is in the best interest of the State.”
The California State Senate passed a bill in 2015 that would have permanently banned all oil leases off the state’s coast. S.B. 788 was not considered by the state’s General Assembly (a body akin to the House of Representatives in most other states).
California’s State Lands Commission had stopped authorizing nearly all new leases after the Santa Barbara spill.
No fossil fuel exploration in waters of the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast subject to the federal Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act has occurred since 1981. Congress included bans on leasing off California’s coast, as well as offshore of several East Coast states, in annual appropriations bills until 2008.
U.S. Presidents also included California’s (along with Oregon’s and Washington’s) coastal waters in exclusions from leasing included in executive orders. Presidents George H.W. Bush, in June 1990, and William J. Clinton, in June 1998, imposed a ban through 2012.
President George W. Bush lifted that ban by revoking those executive orders on July 14, 2008. He also said that he would veto any bill that continued the practice of banning leases off the coast of California and several other states.
President Barack Obama’s administration has returned to the long-time practice of keeping energy exploration activities away from California’s coast. The most recent five-year leasing plan for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management precludes any leasing off the Pacific coast of the continental U.S. between 2017-2022.
The factors weighing against energy exploration off the coasts of Oregon and Washington are largely the same as in California.
According to one 2015 report, Oregon’s rural coast region had more than 21,000 jobs directly dependent on tourism, which also generated more than $1.8 billion in economic activity in that part of the state.
As for fishing, the value of the Beaver State’s commercial onshore fisheries was more than $136 million in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, while spending on recreational fishing in coastal counties exceeded $68 million in 2014.
Washington’s coastal economy is similarly dependent on tourism and fishing. In 2011 tourism and recreation contributed about $3.4 billion to the Evergreen State’s “ocean economy,” while fishing is responsible for at least 16,000 jobs and half of billion dollars of economic activity in Washington.
Pacific waters off the coasts of the two northwestern states have not generally been considered likely to produce significant oil resources. In 1964 the Department of Interior issued leases for 2,400 square kilometers of ocean areas off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Oil companies drilled 13 test wells before those leases expired in 1969.
In 1977 the Department of Interior ranked Oregon and Washington as being lowest among all potential lease areas in the country for “resource potential.” That assessment was essentially confirmed by a 2009 report by Environment America and Sierra Club, which concluded that the amount of oil and natural gas off the Oregon and Washington coasts is “miniscule.”
“The planning area is estimated to contain (i.e., undiscovered economically recoverable resource) approximately 0.3 billion barrels of oil and 1.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas at recent price estimates, representing about 0.6% of total OCS resources for both oil and gas. At recent prices and usage, the oil and natural gas economically available from the Washington/Oregon planning area could supply the nation with 15 days of oil and 20 days of natural gas with a value of $26 billion.”
Oregon and Washington have nevertheless moved to toughen their laws on offshore energy development.
In 2007 Oregon imposed a three-year moratorium on new exlporatory activity and then, in 2010, extended it for 10 more years.
Washington law forbids marine oil exploration only in the area “extending from mean high tide seaward three miles along the Washington coast from Cape Flattery south to Cape Disappointment, nor in Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the Columbia river downstream from the Longview bridge . . .”
Feinstein’s co-sponsors include all of the senators representing the three west coast states covered by her bill: Democrats Kamala Harris of California, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington.
The California senator’s effort to ban drilling off the Pacific coast is not the first attempt she has made. She has introduced similar bills in several previous Congresses. Nor is her bill the first Pacific coast state oil drilling ban to be co-sponsored by West Coast senators.
S.31 has been assigned to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee for consideration. Cantwell and Wyden are members of that committee.
Similar legislation, known as the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Democrat Jared Huffman of California and 13 co-sponsors. They include California Democratic Reps. John Garamendi, Derek Kilmer, Barbara Lee, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Doris Matsui, Jimmy Panetta, Scott Peters, Jackie Speier, Eric Swalwell, and Mike Thompson, Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, and Washington Democrat Suzan DelBene.