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Lands Commission Denies Governor’s Plan to Drill off Santa Barbara Coast

The state panel votes 2-0 to reject request to overturn its January decision

California’s deficit of billions of dollars was not enough to convince members of the State Lands Commission Monday to overturn their January decision to ban drilling off the Santa Barbara County coastline.

The commission met in Santa Monica’s city council chambers at the prompting of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and State Director of Finance Mike Genest, who had included the possibility of drilling at Tranquillon Ridge in his May budget revision despite the panel’s January decision.

Drilling proponents contend that the state could gain $2 billion over the course of a decade, but on Monday, even groups who initially supported the project expressed reservation at what some perceived to be an “end run” around the independent commission’s authority.

In January, the commission voted 2-1 to deny the drilling in controversial decisions that divided many in the environmental community. That decision involved negotiations between Environmental Defense Center and the Texas oil company, Plains Exploration Petroleum

The two agreed that PXP would be allowed to drill at Platform Irene, located off Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the platform sits in federal waters. 

As a condition of the drilling, however, PXP would have to cease work at Irene in 2022, as well as at three other platforms, and pump $2 billion in royalties into state coffers.

The drilling issue came back to the table when the governor issued his revised budget 10 days ago.

After Monday’s vote, Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), applauded the commission’s opposition to the governor’s offshore drilling plan.

“The California State Lands Commission did the right thing today by passing a resolution calling for rejection of the Governor’s proposal,” Nava said.  “We must not reverse hard fought environmental protections which have long protected our coast.”

Tom Sheehy, California’s deputy director of finance, serves on the commission as an alternate for the state’s director of finance. Sheehy supported the project in January, and on Monday, he read a letter from the director of finance, which talked about some of the criteria involved in the request.

“For a limited time period, during an unprecedented fiscal crisis, authority would be restored to the director of finance to reconsider certain lease applications and determine whether those leases would be in the best interest of the state,” Sheehy read.

The lease application must have been filed on or after Jan. 1, 2004, oil and gas deposits must also be subject to ongoing drainage by wells located in adjacent federal fields and eligibility would be limited to leases that have existing infrastructure to pump and transport the gas.
In addition, the lease term could be no longer than 15 years in duration.

Even if all the criteria are met, Sheehy said, the director of finance could only come to such a decision after one or more public hearings are held, and would need to determine that the plan was in the state’s best interest.

It would also maintain the moratorium on building additional drilling platforms in state waters, while at the same time giving the state access to the resources, he said.

The agreement would have a sunset date of January 2011, “at which point, the current fiscal crisis would have hopefully passed,” he said.

After Sheehy finished the letter, he was immediately challenged by Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi. “Why is the governor doing this?” he asked.

If the proposal didn’t go through, Sheehy responded, the infrastructure would “sit there for decades and decades.”

Numerous citizens, elected officials and environmental groups all support the project, he said, and held up a stack of papers, which he said represented 76 pages of comments of project supporters from the January meeting. Only 11 people spoke in opposition of the plan, none of whom, he said, were residents of Santa Barbara County.

Garamendi disagreed. “Never before has this commission’s decision on an oil lease been overridden, or proposed to be overridden by the governor,” he said. 

The criteria don’t explain any benefits to the environment, he said, and “what we have here is a naked end run around the authority of the commission for the first time since the authority was removed from the director of the department of finance because of fraud and abuse.”

Midway through Monday’s meeting, Sheehy received a message that his father-in-law had been killed in an automobile accident, and left the meeting to tend to family business. The commission voted 2-0 at the end of the meeting, rejecting the request to overturn their decision with Sheehy absent.

During public testimony, Susan Jordan, director of California Coastal Protection Network, took issue with Sheehy’s statements about groups that had supported the measure in January. Jordan held up her own stack of papers, which she said were from 35 environmental groups expressing concern with the project. Groups initially supporting the project’s concept, she said, have since expressed concern with the action taken by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

“If I sound upset, it’s because I am. I have never seen such a blatant power grab,” she said.

“If this project is going to go forward, it needs to come back before the commission,” Jordan said. The legal steps to enforce that PXP will stop drilling by a given date also need to addressed and resolved, Jordan said.

Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center, which has represented the groups Get Oil Out and the Citizens Planning Association in the PXP discussions, also said she supported the commission’s independence.

Joe Geever, California policy coordinator for Surfrider, said his group opposes the governor’s moves toward overriding the panel’s actions.

“We’re not here to defend all your decisions, we’re here to defend your authority and process,” he said, noting that Surfrider would also like to see issues of enforceability resolved.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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