How California is Stopping Offshore Drilling

Robert Yarnall Richie

The past or future? (Robert Yarnall Richie)

On Wednesday, California moved to defy the White House by blocking offshore drilling. The state used multiple levers to pit itself against the federal government. In doing so, they also provided a guide to other states on how to push back on fossil fuel development. This is significant because clean energy’s inevitable rise will disrupt the 20th century electricity structure in every state. The disruption will result in changes to the way we lead our lives. The disruption will creates opportunities for community groups to shape what tomorrow looks like.


Hold up, what’s going on with offshore drilling?

At the start of 2018, Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, announced his ambitious agenda to open all US coasts to offshore drilling. The plan was vague on details but clear on its intention to reverse environmental protections from the Obama era by granting more leases to oil companies looking to tap reserves along the outer-continental shelf (OCS). The OCS is the area 230 miles beyond coasts.

This was a significant announcement that aimed to attract billions in oil investment. Under the Obama administration, 94% of the OCS was off limits. Under the Zinke plan, 90% would be accessible.


(Minerals Management Service)

The press release also included this quote from Walter Cruickshank, the Acting Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management:

“Public input is a crucial part of this process, and we hope to hear from industry groups, elected officials, other government agencies, concerned citizens and others as we move forward with developing the 2019-2024 National OCS Program.”

Within a week, Zinke came out to say that Florida was granted an exemption. Republican Governor Rick Scott made the case that drilling for oil off Florida’s coastline would be bad for tourism. Zinke agreed. Within days, every Governor except for Alaska’s and Maine’s, wanted an exemption as well.

This week, California made headlines when Reuters reported that the state planned to block the transportation of oil. The state threw a wrench into Zinke’s plan by using its authority to ban any pipelines from being built.

Finding this regulatory loophole makes all the difference in whether an oil exploration project follows through or not. The costs of an offshore drilling project increase significantly if oil can not be transported via pipeline. Using shipping apparatuses carries greater environmental risks as well as increased costs.


How did California stop the pipelines?

Going up against a federal government backed by the oil industry is a tough task for any state. California – and the states that follow California – will need to build broad coalitions. Here are some of the key players in CA:


Broad public opposition – A 2017 poll by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California revealed that 69% of Californians opposed off-shore drilling. 25% supported drilling. Public sentiment is the key to leading politicians.

Readers outside of California might see 69% as unachievable in their state. But California also demonstrats that attitudes can change quickly. Support for offshore drilling dropped 11 percentage points in one year (2016-17). Change can be sudden.

PPIC CA Offshore Drilling Poll

Environmental advocates – Advocates, a subset of the group above, served to raise awareness of the issue. Advocates the people who opposed drilling and took action to stop it.

We mentioned above that the BOEM said public input would be a “crucial part of this process,” when Zinke revealed his plan. Advocates coalesced to form the most vocal portion of the public input.

The BOEM held an open hearing in Sacramento which led to hundreds of protesters showing up. The protests organized by environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council led to national coverage from The New York Times.


Lt. Governor (Gavin Newsom) – Not only is Newsom the Lt. Governor, he is also the former Mayor of San Francisco, the chair of the State Lands Commission, and a candidate for governor in this year’s election.

Being a candidate can be very helpful to the anti-offshore drilling advocates in any state. Election years are filled with promises and offer a chance to reshuffle priorities.

In Reuters, he said, “I am resolved that not a single drop from Trump’s new oil plan ever makes landfall in California.”

That is the sort of bold proclamation politicians make when they are on the campaign trail. In states where there is public support for clean energy, candidates can be pushed to make these promises. This elevates the issue.


The State Lands Commission – What is a “State Lands Commission”? And since when has a conservation department had the power to successfully challenge the White House?

The State Lands Commission (SLC) is unique to California, but there are other similar regulatory bodies in other states. The SLC is a three-person board whose purpose is to oversee public land’s use and conservation. The board is made up of the Lt. Governor, the State Controller, and the State Director of Finance.

Every state has some form of regulatory body that manages public land use. They rarely make news and are often ignored. California has shown what happens when one of these backwater environmental agencies is instilled with a little power. Suddenly their opinions become important.

Every state has the apparatus to follow suit. To do so, two things need to happen. First, the public lands agency needs to be staffed by people who value environmental conservation over oil development. Second, the agency needs to be listened to. This happens when there are high-profile politicians connected to the agency, when the agency acts in alignment with public opinion, and when the media grants coverage to the agency.


Elected State Officials – The state assemblies are the ones who put together the tools and laws that are used to fight back. How do you gain their attention? The protests pulled in some state senators because they provided a large, sympathetic crowd and media attention.

On Thursday, the state assembly held a vote to request removal from the offshore drilling plan. State politicians favored the motion by a vote of 55-8.


Other State Agencies – The SLC is at the center because it is the driving force, but other state agencies have assisted in slowing offshore drilling plans and raising wariness among potential investors. The New York Times noted that the California Coastal Commission formally requested to be exempted from the Interior Department’s plan. The Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency also voiced opposition.


While no single agency or politician or organization had the power to stop this on their own, they came together and now pose a legitimate challenge to offshore drilling. But more importantly, this is an example that climate change and affordable clean energy have disrupted the power structures of the oil era. This creates opportunity for smaller, local actions to have an outsized impact.


 What can I do?

If you support offshore drilling, you don’t need to do much. The order from the Department of the Interior has been issued. Stopping offshore drilling is up to the opponents.

1) Act local by calling your state representative – Let your local politicians know that there are people in their district who find this issue important. Here is a guide to calling representatives. You can find your state rep’s contact information by doing an internet search: “[Your state] representative contact information].” Each state has its own directory.

2) Raise awareness among friends and co-workers – Californians’ opinions of offshore drilling changed and became crystallized because they were exposed to more information. This came from the press, from public figures, but also from conversations with trusted colleagues and family.

You can familiarize yourself with the benefits and risks to offshore drilling beforehand. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has a blog with information on its risks and why offshore drilling should be stopped. For the pro-drilling perspective, visit the American Petroleum Institute to see the case they make.

3) Sign a petition – This is a quick action but it serves as a good first step to raising awareness. You can share the petition with your network too.


Let us know how your state has responded to clean energy and climate change.

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