When an undersea pipeline off the Orange County coast spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil last fall and fouled beaches and wetlands, it was only the latest illustration of the serious and ongoing danger of aging oil infrastructure along California’s shoreline.
State lawmakers should begin reducing the risks to the coastal environment and the climate by ending drilling in California waters.
They have the opportunity to do so by supporting legislation by state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), drafted in response to the October oil spill off Huntington Beach. The bill would end oil production in state-controlled waters by requiring the State Lands Commission to terminate its coastal oil and gas leases by the end of next year. The legislation would affect 11 leases actively producing oil and gas in state waters and only three platforms operating off the coast of Huntington Beach and Seal Beach, operated by two leaseholders, California Resources Corporation and DCOR.
This bill’s limited scope will by no means eliminate the risk of another spill. It would not apply to the 23 platforms that are in federal waters more than three miles from the shore — including the platform called Elly, from which the oil pipeline that spilled in October flows — or to the four artificial oil islands off the coast of Long Beach. But it would be a meaningful step toward reducing risks from decades-old oil platforms and pipelines off the coast and moving beyond dirty and dangerous fossil fuels.
The legislation also gets ahead of anticipated legal challenges from the industry by authorizing the state to negotiate with those companies to buy out their leases voluntarily before they are terminated. The cost to taxpayers remains uncertain, but could run anywhere from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to industry and government officials.
The Western States Petroleum Assn., which opposes more state restrictions on oil production, hasn’t yet taken a position on the legislation, though California Resources Corp., which operates one of the platforms that would be affected, has said early lease termination would require compensation.
Industry claims that ending these leases amounts to a government “taking” of oil companies’ rights and requires them to receive payments from the state should be thoroughly examined and officials should do everything possible to prevent taxpayers from paying to clean up the oil industry's mess. Another recently introduced bill would address that by requiring the state to complete a study of the costs of buying out those leases.
Petroleum companies have been pumping crude from these platforms for many decades and have made plenty of money doing so. It would be unfortunate if taxpayers are forced to pay large sums to get out of these leases. That would only add to the financial burden imposed by oil companies on California taxpayers in potentially billions in costs to plug and clean idle oil and gas wells throughout the state.
The oil industry and its allies in organized labor have argued that any reduction in local in-state oil production will only lead to increased reliance on oil imported from other countries. There are valid questions about the immediate impact of phasing out oil extraction, but they are offset by the long-term benefit from state policies designed to reduce demand for oil by accelerating the shift to electric vehicles and other zero-emission technology.
To avert a catastrophic heating of the planet, we need to move swiftly toward the elimination of fossil fuel extraction globally, and nowhere is that more important than in our communities and along our shores, where we have the most power to force change. California regulators must work much faster to reduce both supply and demand.
But even the oil industry acknowledges that this legislation's impacts on the state's petroleum supply would be minimal. Offshore drilling accounts for only a tiny fraction of California’s oil production, which has been on the decline for decades, and new oil and gas leasing in state waters has been prohibited since 1994. California produced more than 143 million barrels of oil in 2020, about one-third of its peak output in 1985. Some of the platforms in California waters were installed in the 1960s, before the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill galvanized opposition to coastal drilling and catalyzed the environmental movement. Their leaseholders should have no expectation of operating them perpetually into the future.
Offshore drilling cannot be allowed to drag on with no end date as the climate crisis worsens. Ending these leases is a focused and reasonable approach and a logical and necessary step in California’s efforts to fight climate change and protect its treasured coastline. It also aligns with Gov. Gavin Newsom's goal of phasing out all oil production in the state by 2045.
With so much offshore drilling in federal waters and beyond state control, California leaders must act where they can and do more to quickly end production of risky, polluting and planet-warming fossil fuels. Putting a stop to drilling along our coast isn't enough to safeguard our collective future, but it's a healthy step in the right direction.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.