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California Lands Commission spurns Schwarzenegger's oil drilling proposal

Governor's plan to revive the project and take it out of the commission's control would set a dangerous precedent, environmental groups say. The commission is urging legislators not to approve it.

June 02, 2009|Steve Chawkins

The State Lands Commission on Monday lashed out at an attempt by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to allow the first new oil drilling in California waters since 1969.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, chairman of the three-member panel, called the governor's effort "a naked power grab." At a contentious hearing in Santa Monica, the commission passed a resolution urging legislators not to go along with the plan, which would revive a drilling proposal off the Santa Barbara County coast that the commission killed in January.

At issue is a complex arrangement crafted by Plains Exploration & Production, a Texas oil company, and a coalition of Santa Barbara environmental groups. Under the plan, the oil company would drill into the state's seafloor from a platform it owns in federal waters, just beyond the three-mile limit. In return, the company would agree to shut down that platform and three others by 2022 and to donate 4,000 acres of land for public use.

Seen as a way to eventually end much of the drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel, the idea was hailed as an unprecedented compromise by a broad range of environmental organizations that supported it in January. But many of those groups now oppose the plan if it would require an end-run around the Lands Commission, which has authority over oil drilling and other sensitive issues.

In budget proposals last month, Schwarzenegger suggested revisiting the Tranquillon Ridge drilling plan. The governor is asking the Legislature to transfer authority over the project to his finance department. Over 14 years, Tranquillon Ridge would provide about $2 billion to the state -- a "very important source of revenue," according to commission member Tom Sheehy, deputy director of the California Department of Finance.

"With a $23-billion deficit, now is not the time for business as usual," he said.

At Monday's hearing, Garamendi dismissed assurances from the Schwarzenegger administration that his panel's independence would not be eroded.

"You've taken the position of destroying several decades of work by this commission," he told Sheehy, pointing out that it was established in the late 1930s after an oil scandal had snared state officials.

Sheehy countered that there was nothing wrong with legislative oversight. "The power this body has can be changed, altered, truncated or terminated at any time by statutes," he said. "Let's not forget that."

Even the environmentalists behind the Tranquillon Ridge compromise criticized the governor's eagerness to get it done. Linda Krop, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, told the panel her group has "grave concerns" about the precedent that would be set in bypassing the commission.

In January, the commission concluded that it would be impossible to enforce the part of the deal that would require the oil company to end its drilling. Some environmentalists and legislators also feared it would encourage U.S. officials to allow further drilling in federal waters off California.

But the plan can be modified, Krop said, and it should be the Lands Commission that reconsiders it.

Garamendi and state Controller John Chiang voted to urge legislators to resist the governor's idea.

Earlier, Sheehy had left abruptly after receiving news that his father-in-law had just died in a traffic accident. He asked that the hearing proceed and a vote be taken, Garamendi said.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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