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Californians voice concerns to Obama administration over offshore drilling

During a public comment session in San Francisco, environmental activists decry expansion of oil and gas drilling, which could be allowed after Bush lifted a ban on new leases off the nation's coast.

April 17, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

SAN FRANCISCO — For all his green talk en route to the White House, President Barack Obama remains a cipher on one of the most critical environmental and economic issues facing California: whether to expand drilling for oil and gas off the coast for the first time in a generation.

In four crowded meetings from Atlantic City to Anchorage, the administration has elicited heated comment from all sides on the future of the outer continental shelf, wrapping up a two-week listening tour Thursday in eco-friendly San Francisco.

"How green is Obama? I would say on energy in general, extremely green and visionary and smart," said Warner Chabot, chief executive of the California League of Conservation Voters. "On the issue of offshore oil drilling, there's a big, giant question mark."

Nine months ago, then-President Bush lifted a long-standing White House ban on new oil and gas leases off the nation's coastlines. On Sept. 30, the congressional moratorium on offshore leasing expired.

In the waning months of Bush's tenure, his administration ordered a five-year plan for awarding offshore drilling leases, including opening up 130 million acres off the California coast.

Shortly after Obama took office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar extended the public comment period. The big question now is what the new administration will do.

"We're all waiting to see if he changes the plan," said Alison J. Dettmer, deputy director of energy for the California Coastal Commission. "We want him to change the plan. We all hope that he will -- and remove all the leases in California."

Salazar did little Thursday to fill in the blanks. At a news conference during the all-day hearing, the former Colorado senator said that oil and gas production "has to be something that is on the table for consideration."

"Does that mean we will rubber stamp what President Bush and his administration did with respect to the five-year plan?" he asked. "I expect that the answer to that is no. We will have a different plan, a new way forward that is a comprehensive energy plan."

Although environmental activists promised that Thursday's hearing at UC San Francisco's Mission Bay campus would be attended by a "giant oil rig, dolphin/jellyfish costumes, thousands of activists with signs, live music, surfboards, beach balls," the actual turnout was not nearly on that scale.

Yes, there were some jellyfish of human proportions, a band playing surf music and activists in full-body polar bear and sea turtle suits. A big banner beseeched, "Salazar: Save Polar Bears Now!"

But there were also empty seats in the auditorium, which seats fewer than 500.

"I am kind of disappointed that there wasn't more turnout," said Tim Lyons, a member of the Fremont-based California Coastkeeper Alliance who was decked out as a furry brown sea otter.

Even without the promised cast of thousands, representatives from the oil and gas industry were outnumbered and often booed. Salazar even went out of his way to demand that the audience applaud Joe Sparano, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., for showing up.

Sparano acknowledged that offshore drilling in California is "an emotional issue," but he said that there is "factual information" to prove why "gaining access to additional domestic supplies even here in California is important."

The United States imports between 60% and 65% "of every drop of oil we use every day," he said. And the 10 billion barrels of oil available in California's offshore leases "would allow us to replace California's foreign imports for 35 years."

But a phalanx of elected officials -- including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the mayor of Fort Bragg, Calif. -- condemned any plan to open up the California coast.

They talked in economic terms about coastal jobs, tourism and fishing. They talked in aesthetic terms about the beauty of the 1,150 or so miles of sand and sea. They praised the ocean's biodiversity.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi even invoked a higher power, describing the coast as "a spiritual thing for Californians."

They repeatedly recalled the 1969 oil rig blowout off Santa Barbara, a disaster that spilled more than 200,000 gallons of crude and gave birth to the modern conservation movement.

"Our beautiful coastline and our coastal economy," Boxer said, "are too precious to risk."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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