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You know the drill

Middle East turmoil and rising gas prices renew calls for oil drilling off California's coast

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Skyrocketing oil prices are doing more than providing fuel for a rash of “pain at the pump” stories; they’re also being used to pressure the Obama administration into reopening oil-drilling operations off the Central Coast.

On March 29, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced three bills in Congress that, if passed, would triple current offshore oil production levels. One of the bills, “Reversing President Obama’s Offshore Moratorium Act,” would require the U.S. Department of the Interior to grant new lease sales in areas containing the nation’s greatest known reserves, including fields located off Santa Barbara County, from 2012 to 2017.

The legislation aims to increase nationwide oil production to three million barrels per day, and has a good chance of passing through the Republican-controlled House. However, it will likely have a tougher time in the Senate, where the Democrats hold a six-seat majority.

Democrat Congresswoman Lois Capps said she strongly opposes Hastings’ bill, adding the higher production levels wouldn’t relieve the burden on American consumers.

 “The Republicans’ leadership in the House is once again trying to sell the American people a failed energy policy,” Capps wrote in an e-mail. “New drilling off our shores will do nothing to lower the price of gas or make us any more energy independent.”

 Capps said House Republicans should instead back the Strategic Petroleum Reserve Act, a piece of legislation co-sponsored by Capps that would release oil from the nation’s reserves in order to drive oil prices down. If the goal is reducing dependence on foreign oil, Capps said lawmakers should also look toward developing more fuel-efficient cars and homes, and investing in renewable resources.In an e-mail, Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly said he’s always supported the states’ right to drill off their own coasts and to share in the royalties.

“It makes sense from both an economic and national security perspective to increase domestic oil production while expanding and investigating alternative energy supplies,” Gallegy said. However, Gallegly added, expanding the nation’s oil capacity is just one piece of the energy puzzle.

“We can’t drill our way out of the crisis, solarize our way out, or grow cornstalks out,” he said. “Only a wide-ranging, comprehensive plan that includes every conceivable energy producer will lessen our dependence on foreign oil, eliminate the economic threat posed by Middle Eastern and South American oil-producing nations,
and bring sanity back to fuel prices. The turmoil in the Middle East underlines how precarious it is to depend on foreign oil suppliers.”

In the wake of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama instituted a seven-year moratorium on new offshore drilling operations last December. However, in a March 30 speech to Congress in which he laid out his energy plan, Obama called for giving incentives to oil companies who currently hold offshore leases. The incentives are intended to speed up production and help the country meet the president’s proposed 25-percent reduction of oil imports by 2025.

Though Katcho Achadjian won’t be voting on Hastings’ legislation, New Times also contacted the 33rd District assemblyman, a Republican and longtime proponent of offshore drilling. Achadjian said he’s supportive of ending the offshore moratorium, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact the environment or other businesses.

Achadjian, who owns a chain of gas stations on the Central Coast, disagreed with Capps’ assessment of the impact of expanded domestic production on the price of gas.

“I don’t think you’re going to see the price on the pumps change overnight, but in the long run, it’s the peace of mind that we can be dependent on our own,” he said. “When you’re paying that additional transportation fee from the Middle East to the United States, you take that out of the equation, it has to be much less expensive.”

 Calls for expanded offshore drilling are also gaining steam in the U.S. Senate. On March 31, senators introduced legislation that would require the federal government to take action on pending drilling permits within 40 days. Democrats have gotten into the act as well with a bill which seeks to force oil companies to speed up drilling operations on federal lands they already lease, or be forced to give them up for other companies to develop.

According to a recently released Department of the Interior report, 23,354 of the 241,023 offshore acres leased for oil drilling in the Pacific Ocean are currently inactive.

In addition to bipartisan lawmaker support, public sentiment in favor of offshore oil drilling appears to be gaining across the country. According to a nationwide Gallup poll released March 14, 60 percent of Americans favor increasing drilling in coastal areas. That’s up from 50 percent in May of last year, just after the BP spill.

However, in Santa Barbara County, locals remain wary of any new drilling; memories of the massive 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill still linger in the public consciousness. That spill resulted in a statewide ban on leases for offshore oil drilling, and no new leases have been approved for the area since Pres. George W. Bush lifted an executive ban on federal lease sales in 2008.

“We learned the hard way how much environmental and economic damage can be caused by a major oil spill, and can’t afford another spill or accident,” Capps wrote. “California is looking forward to a 21st century energy policy, not backwards, and House Republicans should do the same.” 

Jeremy Thomas is a staff writer at the Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the south. Send comments to jthomas@santamariasun.com.

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