But the governor insists that cutting a deal with Plains to pump an estimated 100 million barrels of crude from the offshore Tranquillon Ridge field makes sense.
"We have all this oil sitting offshore," said Tom Sheehy, chief deputy director for policy in Schwarzenegger's finance department. The oil can be safely extracted from an existing, operating platform without violating California's ban on new offshore drilling in the three-mile, state-controlled coastal zone, he said.
No significant oil-rig-related spill has occurred in California since 1969, when a blowout spilled more than 80,000 barrels of crude in the Santa Barbara Channel, Sheehy said.
Schwarzenegger also reversed himself on the oil extraction tax. On New Year's Eve, he proposed a 9.9% tax on crude oil at the wellhead. But he switched to a blanket no-new-taxes-of-any-kind position in May after voters turned down some revenue-raising ballot measures. The governor's earlier endorsement of the oil tax was "a one-time shot," said press secretary Aaron McLear.
While the governor has blocked Democratic efforts to revisit his original offer to raise taxes on oil, he's had no success gaining approval for Plains to drill off Santa Barbara.
His luck could swing the other way early next year if there is a change in the political makeup of the State Lands Commission. One of its three members -- Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a Democrat -- is expected to win a November special election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Garamendi had cast one of two "no" votes that shot down the proposed drilling. The governor's representative provided the sole "yes" vote.
That could change if the governor appoints -- and the Legislature supports -- a pro-oil-drilling successor to Garamendi, DeVore speculated. By law, to fill a vacated constitutional office, either the Assembly or the Senate (or both) must vote to confirm a proposed successor -- and neither house can vote to deny confirmation.
"This is absolutely not dead," DeVore said. "There's an urgency for this measure."