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Oil, Water and Ignorance

June 12, 2002

Here's a history lesson for Interior Secretary Gale Norton. She needs it.

On Jan. 28, 1969, an oil rig blew out more than three miles offshore from Santa Barbara. The images of dying birds, sick seals and goo-coated beaches that followed went around the world. It was the worst such accident up to that time and a major impetus for the environmental movement. It helped lead to the first Earth Day in April 1970. And since then, Californians have stood as one against offshore drilling.

Not a single new drilling lease has been granted in state waters. A federal moratorium on leasing was imposed in 1981 and was renewed in 1991 during the presidency of George W. Bush's father. The federal ban was extended by Bill Clinton through 2012.

Only ignorance of that history could have led Norton to state a few days ago, "A major difference between Florida and California is that Florida opposes coastal drilling and California does not."

Norton wrote that in a caustic letter to Gov. Gray Davis, explaining why the Bush administration was buying out undeveloped oil leases off the coast of Florida (a result desired by Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush) but not similar leases off Central California.

Californians are more united regarding offshore oil drilling than on any other environmental issue. Republican Pete Wilson, Davis' predecessor, was a leading opponent of further leasing both as a U.S. senator and as governor. Davis also has been steadfast.

Norton does have one loophole in her statement. Notice she talked of Florida and California, not Floridians and Californians. This is because California has allowed oil companies to drill from existing rigs while Florida still has no rigs at all. Lucky Florida. The oil companies came to California first. Contractually, California can't stop production without buying out the oil companies. Would the Bush administration care to put up billions for that?

There's no denying that Florida has a beautiful coast and fantastic beaches. But California's 1,100-mile shoreline, from the Norway-like North Coast to the sweeping sand and surf of the south, is incomparable.

Norton says the administration will honor the state's existing lease moratorium. Fine. And if the test is how jealously a state guards its coast, then surely California has earned the same courtesy granted to Florida. Cancel those Central Coast leases, too.

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