Governor Schwarzenegger’s bid to capture $1.8 billion by resurrecting a controversial deal to expand offshore oil production near Santa Barbara is not a backdoor attempt to short-circuit anti-drilling policies in state coastal waters, a top administration official said Friday.
“This is not an attempt to circumvent the California Sanctuary Act,” protecting coastal waters, Thomas Sheehy, chief deputy director for policy of the Department of Finance, told Calbuzz. “This is in no way a camel’s nose event.”
As new details emerged about the governor’s plan to authorize a new offshore oil lease, unveiled in his latest budget proposals, leaders of a key environmental group that earlier favored the disputed deal over the drilling area reacted cautiously to Schwarzenegger’s move.
“We’re still processing,” said Linda Krop, lead attorney for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center told us, moments after finishing a conference call with Sheehy in which he briefed her on the proposal. “My first reaction was ‘What? You’re going to take this action without full public (participation)?’
“They’re addressing some of our concerns,” she added. “It’s still unfolding.”
As a political matter, the support of Krop and her group is crucial to Schwarzenegger’s hope of renewing the deal on offshore drilling, long a third-rail issue in California politics.
At issue is what is known as the Tranquillon Ridge project. Earlier this year, the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), representing a broad coalition of coastal protection groups, and the Houston-based Plains Exploration & Production oil company (PXP) hammered out an agreement that would allow the company to drill in state waters at Platform Irene, located off the coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The company now drills in federal waters on one side of the ridge, and there is no end date for them to stop doing so. At the same time, the California Sanctuary Act of 1994 has blocked the company from drilling in state waters, which extend three miles out from the coastline.
In exchange for a state lease to expand drilling for oil and gas, which drain from federal into state waters at Tranquillon Ridge, the company agreed to a series of environmental concessions sought by EDC.
Chief among these was an agreement to permanently shut down Platform Irene in 2022, ending all drilling in both federal and state waters. PXP also promised funds to permanently protect thousands of acres of onshore lands, about $350 million of tax revenue for local government, plus $1.8 billion in royalty payments to the state over the next 14 years.
Despite support from both the company and most local coastal protection groups, the deal was rejected by the State Lands Commission in January by a vote of 2-to-1. Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi and Controller John Chiang opposed it while Sheehy, the Department of Finance representative on the panel, voted in favor.
With the state now facing a budget deficit of $15-21 billion, depending on the outcome of next week’s election, Schwarzenegger is now trying to breathe new life in the proposal, through legislation that would overcome the State Lands Commission’s disapproval of it. His new plan for addressing the budget crisis counts $100 million in new revenue for the coming fiscal year, an advance on the royalties from PXP.
In a prepared statement, PXP said that, “We are encouraged that the governor recognizes the merits of the project, which includes substantial monetary value to the state.
“PXP is ready to move forward with this project following its approval by the governor and the California state legislature,” the statement said.
Krop said that her first thought after hearing of the proposal Thursday was that the governor was trying to end run the normal, comprehensive public hearing and multi-agency processes involved in such an environmentally sensitive project, which could establish a precedent for doing so. After hearing from Sheehy, however, she said she felt somewhat reassured.
“Is it really a precedent?” she told us. “This is the only place in the state” that would be affected.
(Wonk Alert! Next section goes deep into policy and process weeds).
Department of Finance officials said the governor’s plan included these elements:
— A budget trailer bill that would allow the Director of Finance to “reconsider” an offshore deal that conformed with legislative language defining six specific circumstances which apply only to the PXP deal; the most important is that oil and gas are draining into state waters at the site, and Tranquillon is the only project that meets that criteria.
— A process by which the Department of Finance would hold a public hearing in Santa Barbara, the Coastal Commission would also have hearings, and federal Minerals Management Service would review the deal in a manner that officials said would be “fully transparent.” The State Lands Commission would not get another opportunity to vote on it, although finance department officials would consult with staff about its environmental concerns.
— A provision to sunset in January 2011 the legislation giving special authority to the Director of Finance to review offshore projects that meet special conditions.
“Tranquillon is the only project that fits” the narrow criteria in the legislation, Sheehy said. “This project has tremendous environmental benefits for California, and we can’t turn a blind eye to the financial benefits.”
But Susan Jordan, a longtime advocate for coastal protection, who broke with her longtime allies at EDC and opposed the PXP deal back in January, was not persuaded.
“They’re giving special treatment to this project,” she said. “The most important issue is, they’re not following existing legal process and (they’re) taking away existing legal protections” that govern offshore projects.