A new statewide poll reports that a sizeable majority of likely voters now favors expanded offshore oil drilling in California, a finding likely to fuel renewed efforts to approve the just-defeated Tranquillon Ridge project .
A PPIC survey released late Wednesday shows that 55 percent of likely voters support more oil drilling off the coast, compared to 41 percent who oppose it. Among all adults, the gap is narrower — 51-to-43 percent in favor — although this is the second year in a row that PPIC found majority backing for more drilling, which previously was a long-settled issue in the state.
The new data comes as executives of the Houston-based oil company PXP vow to continue pressing for approval of a state lease for the controversial project off the coast of Santa Barbara, which was defeated in the Assembly last week after passing the senate by one vote.
An Administration spokesman also said the governor remains enthusiastic about the proposal – and hopes to get another chance to sign it into law.
“The fact that the Legislature did not approve it does not in any way lessen the Administration’s support for the project,” Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer told Calbuzz. “Nor does it in any way lessen the fiscal and environmental benefits to the state, which we hope the Legislature will re-examine.”
In the context of the budget battle, the basic media narrative that emerged from last week’s dust-up framed the Tranquillon Ridge vote, with its potential revenues for the state, as a simple yea-or-nay referendum on offshore drilling. In fact, the policy issues at stake are more nuanced and complex, given that the rejected legislation has its roots in a negotiated 2008 agreement between PXP and a large group of Santa Barbara environmentalists ; they enthusiastically backed a new state lease –- for slant drilling off an existing oil platform in federal waters — as a pathway to ending some drilling off their coast permanently.
As a political matter, the unsettled conflict over the project is significant for several key reasons:
— In California, the fight over Tranquillon Ridge reflects a shifting political landscape, as recession-mired residents appear to be recalibrating the balance between long-held, pro-environmental values and economic growth and energy costs. The PPIC poll found that public support for policies to improve the environment “has dropped a notch,” in the words of poll-taker Mark Baldassare, on a host of issues, including climate change and air quality, with wide partisan differences in each case.
— Across the nation, the fight over the PXP project is being watched as a possible precedent-setter, at a time when the Obama Administration is conducting a review of the government’s five-year drilling plan for the outer continental shelf. The issue is particularly germane in Florida where U.S. Senators from Alaska and Louisiana are trying to remove prohibitions against drilling in a wide swath of coastal waters.
— In Sacramento, the issue is filled with palace intrigue, because environmentalists who negotiated the agreement with PXP hope eventually to bring it back to the State Lands Commission for reconsideration. The commission defeated it on a 2-to-1 vote last January, with Lt. Governor John Garamendi leading the opposition; with Garamendi now running for a House seat in the 10th Congressional District, insiders are spinning scenarios in which Schwarzenegger might appoint Garamendi’s replacement, swinging the balance of power on the commission in support of the project.
PXP oil company executives have spent millions on some of the top lobbying talent in Sacramento, including Darius Anderson, good pal of Schwarzenegger chief of staff Susan Kennedy, according to a nice weekend piece by the Bee’s Kevin Yamamura that examined how the Third House influenced the budget deal.
PXP executives made it clear immediately after the project was voted down in the Assembly that they plan to keep pushing: “PXP is committed to continue working with California’s elected and appointed leaders on a potential agreement for the T-Ridge project to build on the momentum generated by the (Schwarzenegger) Administration’s and Senate’s bipartisan support,” PXP vice president Steve Rusch said in a statement released Sunday.
The project could return in several venues. Speaker Karen Bass said in a statement after the budget vote that the project “could be reconsidered in August.” Although Bass’s press office failed to return calls seeking clarification about exactly what this meant, it is possible the project could return in a standalone bill. With state revenues continuing to plunge, the project might also be resurrected yet again if the governor and Legislature have to craft another deficit cutting package in the fall or winter.
And as leaders of Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center work to address the problems with the project cited by the State Lands Commission in January – specifically the enforceability of PXP promises to permanently end offshore drilling on four federal platforms in exchange for the state lease – the possibility that Schwarzenegger could name a replacement for Garamendi would be crucial.
“This ain’t over,” Attorney General hopeful and Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, who led the charge against the project, told us. “Round two is coming up.”
Weed Whacking with PPIC
Foes of offshore drilling no doubt will try to minimize the importance of the new poll’s basic finding –- that all adults surveyed favor expanded drilling by 51-to-43 percent –- which is essentially unchanged from last year, when a slim majority of Californians –- 51-to-45 percent –- favored more drilling, albeit for the first time in PPIC polling history.
But if you, uh, drill down into the data, there are some troubling trends for coastal oil foes.
For starters, among likely voters, which is to say the most politically engaged Californians, the majority of those who favor more drilling is significantly larger – 55-to-41 percent – than among all adults. In this group, the pro-drilling view has grown substantially stronger in one year; in 2008, likely voters told PPIC they favored more drilling by 51-to-45. This represents a net pick up of eight percentage points for the drill baby drill team in just one year.
Breaking the likely voter numbers down along partisan lines shows that the polarized views of Democrats and Republicans on the subject are essentially unchanged: 34 percent of Democrats now favor more drilling (compared to 32 percent last year) while 81 percent of Republicans are now in favor (compared to 80 percent in 2008).
But there has been a dramatic switch in attitudes among independent voters:
— In 2008, independents opposed more drilling by a ratio of 53-to-43 percent, with four percent having no opinion.
— In 2009, independent likely voters now say they favor more offshore drilling, by 55-to-42 percent, a net swing of 23 points in favor of the oil companies’ position.
–Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine