By Lt. Gov. John Garamendi
Special to Calbuzz
The Schwarzenegger Administration, through the California Department of Finance, wants to “drill baby drill” off the Golden State’s coastline, and they’re willing to undermine 70+ years of checks and balances to do it. Will we let them get away with it?
In late January, I joined California Controller John Chiang in a two-to-one vote of the California State Lands Commission (SLC) to reject what would have been the first new oil lease in California waters in more than 40 years.
As chair of the SLC, I take my responsibility as a steward of the environment very seriously, and I did not think the proposal was in the best interests of the state. Beyond the inherent environmental risks posed by all new drilling projects, I did not think assurances included in the proposal to decommission oil platforms decades down the road were enforceable.
Unfortunately, the Department of Finance is unable to take “No” for an answer. For the first time in our commission’s 70-year history, their proposal is to bypass the SLC and permit the Department of Finance to authorize the oil lease off the Santa Barbara coast. Let’s keep in mind it was 70 years ago that a major scandal (link) at the Department of Finance led to the State Lands Commission having the authority to issue leases.
What is wrong with this picture? Plenty, and at the expense of California.
The Schwarzenegger Administration refuses to tax Big Oil companies that now extract oil in California to fund critical health care services, children’s programs and education. This tax would generate $1.2 billion dollars annually. On Monday, the Governor warned he will veto the budget bill package including an oil production tax.
Instead the administration is taking the quick and dirty way out. Big Oil has offered to California $100 million dollars to seduce the state into granting the first new oil drilling lease in California since the Santa Barbara oil spill 41 years ago, a spill that covered hundreds of miles of ocean and over 30 miles of sandy beaches with more than three million gallons of crude oil.
Learning from history means not blindly repeating the mistakes of the past.
At an open hearing of the SLC last month in Santa Monica, Controller Chiang and I again joined together to voice our opposition to this power grab, backing a resolution calling on the legislature to reject the Department of Finance’s proposal. During public comment, 12 environmentalists agreed with our position – including representatives from the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Center – while not a single individual rose in support of the Department of Finance’s end-run around the SLC.
”We cannot get away from the fact that this is the first new offshore oil lease in 40 years, and if I sound upset, it’s because I am,” said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network. “I have never seen such a blatant power grab.”
“We don’t always agree with the decisions made by this body, but we recognize and support the hard work of your staff and the public process designed to enforce the protection of our precious state lands,” added Joe Geeber, California Policy Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation.
The science is clear; drilling for new oil now exposes our coast to the potential devastation caused by an oil spill and contributes to the greenhouse gases that chill our ability to combat global warming. As I’ve said in the past, California must focus on becoming a renewable energy leader and leave the extraction of new sources of fossil fuels to the 20th century.
But you don’t have to agree with me to appreciate the larger issues at stake.
To bypass the SLC and give the Department of Finance authority to approve this oil lease threatens the independence of the SLC, a commission designed to be an independent environmental watchdog.
More than 35 environmental organizations are opposed to the Department of Finance’s plan, including some that were initially supportive of the oil lease proposal. To allow the Department of Finance to usurp the independent commission responsible for protecting our state lands and waters means we will lose one of the most important safeguards available to California ‘s natural habitats.