To Drill or Not to Drill? That Is the Question

The State Lands Commission on Thursday is expected to decide the fate of a proposal that could lead to the approval of the first new oil drilling project off the California coast in 40 years.

  • Watch live video of the meeting, which begins at noon, on News Raw.

Plains Exploration & Production Co. wants the commission to approve its bid to expand drilling off Platform Irene in the Santa Barbara Channel. Chairman Lt. John Garamendi has already said he would vote against the proposal and his colleagues appeared split before the vote, setting up the possibility the plan could die on a 2-1 vote.

The proposal, which could be worth millions of dollars, was announced last year with a landmark alliance between longtime anti-oil environmentalists and the oil company. The environmental groups signed a confidential agreement to lobby for the deal in exchange for a raft of promises from the company, including billions in revenue for the state, thousands of acres and a commitment to end its local drilling by 2022.
While the proposal has enjoyed unprecedented support from about 25 environmental organizations statewide, lawmakers from California to Washington, D.C., recently challenged the plan. Many worried the proposal could invite more offshore drilling along the California coast and undermine efforts to reinstate a federal drilling moratorium that was lifted by the Bush administration.

Garamendi said he has spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other members of the California congressional delegation who also expressed concern that approving a drilling proposal could undercut their efforts to reintroduce the federal moratorium.

But supporters, including Rep. Lois Capps, a Democrat who represents Santa Barbara, have argued that the unique proposal would end drilling in Santa Barbara and would not lead to more drilling statewide. The deal is led by three groups: the Environmental Defense Center, Get Oil Out! and the Citizens Planning Association of Santa Barbara County.

Others such as Linda Krop, the lead attorney representing the environmental groups, warns that if the project is not approved, the state would lose the many benefits the groups negotiated.


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"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Krop. "If people really want to protect the coast from offshore oil and gas development, this is the best opportunity to do that."

The commission's staff has recommended rejection, saying there is no guarantee that the company, known as PXP, will have to eventually shut down operations. The staff's finding prompted two major environmental backers of the plan -- the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League -- to send a letter to the commission this week saying their support was contingent on the terms being fully enforced.

The company had no comment ahead of the vote. Previously, it has called the plan a win-win deal for oil exploration and the environment.

The vote is scheduled for the day after the 40th anniversary of a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara that coated miles of beaches with oil and killed dolphins, seals and thousands of birds. The spill helped lead to the Clean Water Act and a moratorium on offshore drilling, galvanizing the modern environmental movement.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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