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Gov. Resists New Coastal Oil Drilling

Schwarzenegger tells a key congressman that he opposes a move to weaken a federal moratorium on new oil wells off California.

November 04, 2005|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday told a key Republican congressman that he opposes any effort to weaken the 24-year-old federal moratorium on new oil drilling off California's coast.

The governor, who has been heavily lobbied on this issue, weighed in a week before the House of Representatives was poised to vote on legislation that could reopen coastal waters around the United States to oil and gas exploration

"California reaps tremendous benefits from our ocean and coastal environments," Schwarzenegger wrote Thursday to Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Committee on Resources. "I am unwilling to put this environment at risk for the sake of new energy exploration ... and continue to support the permanent protection of these waters."

Schwarzenegger delivered his letter to Pombo because he is the architect of complicated federal legislation that could give states more control over drilling off their coasts, but only after repealing the congressional ban that has protected the California coast since 1981.

Pombo, as chairman of the Resources Committee, last week inserted the offshore-drilling legislation into a massive budget bill that is scheduled for a vote by the House next week.

Now another California congressman, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-San Dimas), is considering whether to strip the drilling component from the budget bill to make sure it doesn't peel off moderate Republicans needed for the bill's passage.

The offshore-drilling provisions, and other controversial items such as opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, will be considered by House Republican leaders in a strategy session today, a Dreier spokesman said.

Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy said he doubted that Schwarzenegger's letter threatens the chances for speedy approval through the budget process.

"The [offshore oil] legislation moving through the Congress satisfies the governor's concerns completely," Kennedy said. "Nowhere in his letter does he say, 'I oppose what you are doing.' It appears that Gov. Schwarzenegger and Chairman Pombo are in lock-step when it comes to protecting the California coast."

Others said Schwarzenegger's letter did not go far enough in opposing loosening of the moratorium. The issue has generated wide and passionate political opposition since a 1969 Santa Barbara oil platform blowout blackened Southern California beaches.

"The governor has announced his opposition to new offshore drilling, and that's fine," said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara.) "But I'm not convinced his heart is in it. It's one thing to send up a carefully worded letter to [Capitol] Hill, but if he were serious about stopping new drilling, he'd be on the phone with California Republicans and the House leadership urging them to reject this assault on our state."

California Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman, who oversees the state's natural resources, recently met with Pombo on the issue but was unavailable for comment. Schwarzenegger spokesman Bill Maile said the governor would have no further comment.

His letter to Pombo states: "I oppose any efforts to weaken the federal moratorium for oil and gas leasing off the coast of California and I support efforts to make the moratoria and the presidential deferrals for California permanent.

"I recognize the efforts you have made to provide states a larger role in [oil] leasing activities off their coast," the governor wrote. "However, states should not face hurdles to 'opt in' to a moratorium that has existed for almost a quarter of a century."

What this means is that the governor's staff has looked at the details of the bill that Pombo promotes as a way to empower states to decide whether to keep their coastal waters off-limits to drilling or to allow new drilling in return for a share of oil royalties.

Capps held a news conference Thursday with five other Democratic and Republican congressional representatives who oppose the bill. They said it certainly would give states more control if they supported oil drilling. But the way the bill is written, she said, would make it harder for a state to protect its coastal waters by extending a ban on drilling.

The "opt-in process is purposefully cumbersome, requiring repeated, separate actions by state legislatures and governors that don't want new drilling," she said.

The bill is focused on federal waters, which begin three miles from the coast. States have jurisdiction over near-shore waters.

New offshore drilling in federal waters is banned -- except in much of the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast -- under a congressional moratorium that has been renewed annually by a bipartisan coalition of coastal lawmakers for 24 years in a row.

Pombo, a champion of domestic oil production, has joined oil industry efforts to end the moratorium. His bill would take the decision from Congress and give it to the Interior Department and the states.

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