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Experts weigh in on the future of offshore drilling in California

Proposed federal plans would open most U.S. coastal waters to controversial oil drilling.

A panoramic view of the Pacific Coast from Goat Rock state park. | iStock/AlessandraRC

A panoramic view of the Pacific Coast from Goat Rock state park. | iStock/AlessandraRC

The federal government has made clear its intention to open U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling, but Californians beg to differ.

Like Florida—alone among coastal states in receiving an exemption to the drilling plan—California relies on its iconic coastline for economic stimulus, recreation and other cherished values. 

After a large oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, California stopped leasing state-controlled offshore tracts for drilling. Although California cannot legally shut down current offshore oil operations or control waters more than 3 miles off the coast, the state may have options to block an expansion of drilling. In the meantime, the public comment period for the federal plan ends March 9.

Stanford Report spoke with Alexandria Boehm, professor of civil and environmental engineering and coastal water quality expert, and Deborah Sivas, environmental law expert, to get their perspectives on the value of California’s coastal environment, the risks policymakers should consider as they evaluate areas for offshore drilling and other related issues. Boehm and Sivas co-teach California Coast: Science, Policy and Law, which usually draws students from legal, scientific and engineering disciplines. The class introduces graduate and undergraduate students to scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders to better understand public and private decision making around coastal issues such as ocean acidification and stormwater discharge to the sea.

What makes the California coast so unique and/or valuable?

Boehm: Southern California’s beaches are iconic, but Central and Northern California waters are more pristine and productive in terms of sea life. The nutrient-rich waters of the California Current, which flows down the length of the coast, sustains intricate food webs—great white sharks, elephant seals, kelp forests—and gives rise to valuable and unique ecosystems. California’s beaches are a huge driver for the state’s economy. Research by Judith Kildow and Linwood Pendleton has shown we have about 240 million days of individual beach visits every year. By comparison, the total number for all American national parks is about 286 million.

What are the key legal issues at play in the potential return of offshore drilling to the coast of California and other states?

Sivas: The close of the public comment period is just the first—and a not very legally significant—phase. It allows the public to weigh in on preliminary proposals, and it allows the Interior Department to gauge the level of controversy or support. My guess is that in states like California, the public comments will be overwhelmingly negative. The next step is for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to prepare an actual proposed program and to put that out for further public comment. BOEM is required to actually respond in some way to those comments before making a final decision. At the same time, the agency will be preparing a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for public comment and then, ultimately, a Final Programmatic EIS. The Final Program and the Final EIS will almost certainly be subject to protracted judicial challenge. Either way, after the programmatic documents are finalized, the administration can offer leases for sale.

How might California block the expansion of offshore drilling?

Sivas: To develop an oil lease on the California coast, you need a way to store and transport the pumped oil. Normally, an offshore leaseholder must secure approvals for supporting coastal infrastructure, such as pipelines to the shore, unless it plans to ship all oil directly from the rig in federal waters to somewhere else—an approach not likely to be economically viable in today’s market. As they did after the Santa Barbara spill in 1969, state and local agencies and entities could deny approvals to companies seeking to build oil rig infrastructure onshore.

What should policymakers consider most closely as they evaluate areas for offshore drilling?

Boehm: A lot of thought and energy has gone into creating and monitoring marine protected areas off the coast of California. They are supposed to be pristine places where wildlife goes untouched. I think policymakers should consider carefully the location of these protected areas and how offshore drilling might affect them. If offshore drilling were to happen, it would be really important to engage different stakeholders on where to do it. Policymakers and scientists would need to discuss gaps in data and knowledge. If everyone has a say, it will be safer for the coast.

Sivas: It makes no sense, from a political, economic, societal or moral perspective, to champion a huge ramp up in offshore oil development at this point in human history. The U.S. is producing record levels of crude oil, so why would we flood the market with more oil from more expensive, more environmentally risky offshore operations? On the environmental front, we have learned over and over again that oil companies and government agencies are unprepared to deal with the extreme ecological, economic and recreational consequences of oil spills, which inevitably occur. So, a realistic and rigorous risk assessment is imperative. But we are moving in the wrong direction, with the Trump administration trying to roll back the minimal safety rules put into place after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Policymakers ought to be thinking deeply about not promoting or facilitating any new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure when the singular challenge of our time is to wean society off oil and gas in favor of non-carbon renewable energy alternatives.

If there were an oil spill, how might beach monitoring programs, citizen science initiatives and/or private sector engagement help protect our coastal waters?

Boehm: Right now, the state mandates monitoring of fecal bacteria off public beaches. If there were offshore drilling, potentially we could begin to require visual monitoring for tar balls that wash up on the beach, glistening water, that sort of thing. There could be a crowd-sourcing component, like we see with some earthquake monitoring.

How might your course, California Coast: Science, Policy and Law, apply to this particular issue?

Sivas: In the California Coast class, we always try to have students wrestle with the most pressing and controversial policy issues, as informed by the science and the applicable law. Offshore drilling has been off the political agenda for a long time. Now that the Trump administration has put it back on the table, we definitely will be addressing it in this year’s version of the class. We might take a field trip to Louisiana to see the real long-term ecological effects of an offshore rig blowout.

Boehm: We will consider adding a module to the class to discuss the issue of offshore oil drilling and use it to further discuss what happens when federal and state government environmental policies differ drastically. I could imagine talking to people who dealt with a big oil spill in Huntington Beach in 1990 or people who deal with shipping-related oil spills in the Bay Area to hear firsthand about the impacts.


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