By Christine Neilson
Special to the OC Voice
Are Californians desperate enough for oil to overcome their deep-seated aversion to offshore drilling?
Will a new Democratic or Republican president and Congress lift the national moratorium on offshore drilling for oil instituted by former president George R. Bush, Sr., as requested by his son and current president, George W. Bush?
California’s offshore oil industry stretches back more than a century. The world’s first offshore well was drilled in 1897 at the end of a wharf in Summerland, just east of Santa Barbara.
The waters between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands still hold most of California’s operating oil platforms.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service controls oil leases in federal waters, which start 3 miles off the California coast. Most of the state’s known oil fields lie not far from shore, in an arc stretching from Santa Maria to Long Beach.
A 1969 blowout at a rig near Santa Barbara spewed crude oil into the sea, coating or contaminating 30 miles of shoreline. The spill helped forge the modern environmental movement and led to state and federal moratoriums on new offshore drilling.
On Feb. 7, 1990, the steam tanker American Trader spilled an estimated 416,598 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean off of Huntington Beach.
At the time, the vessel was
carrying a cargo of Alaska North Slope crude oil from the Keystone Canyon, a very large crude carrier anchored in Long Beach to several locations along the southern California coast, including the Golden West terminal at Huntington Beach. The vessel’s anchor punctured two holes in the starboard cargo tank due to a combination of ocean swells and inadequate water depth during an attempted mooring at the sea berth.
Effects on Environment
The spill affected 60 square miles of ocean and washed ashore along approximately 14 miles of beaches, affecting seabirds and recreational use of beaches for five weeks. Approximately 3,400 birds died, and as many as 9,500 chicks were not born as a result of the spill. The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)-a federally listed endangered species-was severely affected. An estimated 195 of these birds died.
Threats to ecological sensitive areas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency reports, are the expelling of arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, barite, chrome lignosulfate, petroleum hydrocarbons, vanadium, copper, aluminum, chromium, zinc, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, radionuclides, and other heavy metals into the atmosphere.
An oil spill can also harm organisms that live on the bottom of the ocean and lead to negative impacts on other marine life throughout the region, including changes in the its richness and diversity .
The moratorium froze California’s offshore oil industry. Oil companies holding undeveloped leases have spent years haggling with environmental groups and the federal government in and out of court
to extend their leases or sell them back to the government.
agencies estimate that California’s coastal ocean bottoms could be covering 10.13 billion barrels of oil. That’s almost the same amount believed to lie beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also enough to supply all the oil Americans consume for about 17 months. It would feed California’s total oil appetite for 15 years.
Area politicians are drawing a line in the sand over America’s insatiable hunger for oil. A debate that has changed from oil spills to oil supply.
U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of the 46th District of California including Huntington Beach supports the “American Energy Act” H.R. 6566 proposed July 23 by members of the House Republican Conference. This Act is a compilation of all the major Republican initiatives to allegedly bring down the price of energy for the American people in order to reduce the price at the pump, according to Rohrabacher’s press secretary Tara Setmayer.
“Bipartisan passage of the American Energy Act would demonstrate to the world that America will no longer keep its rich energy resources under lock-and-key. Not only will it help bring down the price of gasoline now, but it will make needed investments in the alternative fuels that will power our lives and our economy in the future” Setmayer concludes.
Drilling advocates claim the lack of increased offshore drilling has contributed to California’s growing dependence on imported crude. The state used to produce more oil than it could use. But overall production peaked in 1983 and has been dropping ever since.
The good news for opponents of new offshore drilling is that the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization, finds that spiraling gasoline prices might not be the deciding factor for Californians even as the offshore oil push by President Bush and Republican candidate John McCain, as well as House leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic candidate Barack Obama, is resonating with the public as a whole.
“Tough economic times have not diminished the importance of environmental issues for Californians,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the institute. “The environment is seen as a matter of health and well-being, and residents don’t want to cut corners there.”
Mayor of Huntington Beach and one ofRohrabacher’s Congressional election opponents, Debbie Cook (D), agrees. “It is obvious to any observer that oil production, for whatever reason, whether geologic or geopolitical in nature, is not going to keep up with demand.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, according to the Public Policy Institute staff, report that any new offshore drilling would take a decade or more to get underway and even then would have negligible effect on gas prices.
“The truth is that our economy was built on abundant cheap fossil fuels whose subsidized prices encouraged waste and rapid consumption,” Cook says, adding that declining quality and quantity of available oil will devastate the economy.
“We can continue to waste precious time hanging on to the 19th century fuels or we can move rapidly and consistently toward the 21st century responses,” Cook warned.