Tuesday, December 3, 2002
California Can Halt New Coastal Oil Drilling, Ninth Circuit Rules
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Opponents of new oil platforms along California’s Central Coast were handed a victory yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld California’s power to review federal drilling lease extensions.
Congress gave the state a say in any activity affecting coastal communities under the Coastal Zone Management Act, amended in 1990, Senior Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote for the three-judge panel.
Beginning with the disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, both federal and state laws and regulations have been put in place to assure that oil and gas rigs could be positioned for resuming drilling only after state review.
The ruling blocks any attempt to build the first new oil platforms off California’s coast since 1994. No drilling to explore for oil deposits has been conducted since 1989. The proposed developments were off the coastline of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
At issue were federal “suspensions” of 36 off-shore oil and gas leases, which instead of holding the leases up actually would have blocked their expiration, and would have allowed the federal government to extend their terms.
Without the suspensions, the leases would expire, and oil companies holding them would lose all production rights.
Oil exploration off California’s coast has been an explosive issue since 1969, when a massive oil spill soiled the Santa Barbara and Ventura county coasts. Offshore rigs account for roughly 20 percent of the state’s petroleum production.
California sued to block the exploration days after President Clinton’s interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, extended petroleum companies’ offshore leases for 10 years in 1999 as they were set to expire.
The lawsuit contended that Babbitt’s decision was subject to review by the state under a federal law giving California authority to determine whether offshore drilling in federal waters is consistent with the state’s coastal protection plans.
The San Francisco-based appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who last year ruled that the federal government illegally extended the oil companies’ 10-year leases. The extensions are called “suspensions” in legal jargon.
The appeals court agreed with Wilken, who said the government “must provide the state of California with a determination that its grant of the lease suspensions at issue here is consistent with California’s coastal management program.”
The Justice Department argued to Wilken and the appeals court that the law did not give California a say. The Justice Department was not immediately prepared to comment on whether it would appeal.
Wilken ordered all leases terminated until the federal Minerals Management Service complies with her order, a decision upheld by the appeals court.
The governor appoints four of the 12 members of the California Coastal Commission. If Gov. Gray Davis has his way, the commission would scuttle new exploration. Davis has pledged to lobby the commission to reject the deal if the court’s ruling ultimately is upheld.
“The court’s ruling is essentially a big stop sign to Washington. They should take the hint and halt further attempts to exploit California’s spectacular coastal resources,” Davis said. “Today’s decision is a victory for all Californians, the environment and states’ rights.”
Drew Caputo, a Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer who sued the federal government along with California, agreed with Davis.
“The threat to the coast from these oil leases is serious. In order to protect the coast, these leases need to go away,” he said.
This year, the Bush administration announced plans to protect Florida’s coast by spending $120 million to buy oil and gas rights in the Everglades and $115 million to pay oil companies to stop drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico.
The administration has rejected requests from Davis to extend the same protections to California.
Oil companies have paid $1.25 billion for the 40 leases, each covering about a nine square-mile expanse of ocean. The leases were issued between 1968 and 1984. Four of them expired in 1999.
According to federal estimates, the oil at stake could be enough to run California’s refineries for two years and fuel five months’ worth of the state’s natural gas demands buried within the leases.
The case is California v. Norton, 01-16637.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company