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In California, Support Grows for Offshore Drilling

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In California, Support Grows for Offshore Drilling

Just 51% Favor Ban, 
As High Prices Lead 
To Some Rethinking
July 17, 2008; Page A2

With gas prices rising, California residents are softening their long-held opposition to offshore drilling, a new opinion poll suggests.

The shift comes as Congress and the Bush administration are escalating a battle over whether to end a two-decade federal ban on drilling off the coasts of California, Florida and the Eastern seaboard.


A new Field Poll survey to be released Thursday shows that 43% of Californians support the idea of drilling for oil or natural gas along the state’s coast, compared with 51% who oppose it. In the last Field Poll survey on the topic, in 2005, 39% supported such drilling, compared with 56% in opposition. The majority of Californians have opposed the drilling in the poll since 1984.

The Bush administration and Democratic leaders in Congress have been trading jabs in the most intense election-year battle over energy policy in nearly 30 years. Democratic congressional leaders plan to push for votes Thursday on plans to promote more domestic oil and natural-gas drilling, and to crack down on oil-market speculation.

Their moves were upstaged Wednesday by the Bush administration, which announced a long-planned action to move forward with big oil-lease sales in Alaska. The leases could result in the development of as much as 8.4 billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas for shipment to North American markets, the government predicted.

Mr. Bush earlier this week lifted a presidential ban on drilling in off-limits areas along the coast. Democratic congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, have vowed to maintain the ban, while pushing other measures aimed at easing high oil prices.

But Democratic leaders are facing trouble in their effort to sustain the offshore ban. A bipartisan group of House members is trying to rally support for an end to the ban, which has blocked access to potential oil fields off California, Florida and other states. In the Senate, Republicans are threatening to block a Democratic-backed measure to rein in oil-market trading if the bill doesn’t relax the offshore-drilling ban.

The shift in sentiment on drilling in California could help Republicans in the Washington debate, though they still can’t say that a majority of Californians support more oil rigs off the coast. Much of the opposition stems from media images of a 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara.

Associated Press
Memories of a 1969 oil spill off the Santa Barbara, Calif., coast appear to be fading as gas prices rise.

“That memory was embedded in the minds of local officials, state legislators and members of Congress,” said Richard Charter, consultant to the Defenders of Wildlife, which is lobbying against lifting Congress’s moratorium.

Other businesses and politicians worry about the potential impact that drilling would have on coastal tourism and ocean-dependent businesses.

Of California’s 27 offshore platforms, 20 are in the Santa Barbara channel and environs.

Ms. Pelosi, as well as the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have blasted Mr. Bush for lifting the moratorium. Even if Congress lifts the federal moratorium, California can prevent new drilling in federal waters, said Brian Baird, the assistant secretary for ocean coastal policy for the state’s resources agency.

If the Department of Interior opens federal waters to drilling from oil companies, the California Coastal Commission can exercise its “federal-consistency” authority and prohibit specific plans to drill. But oil companies could appeal to the secretary of commerce, who could override the coastal commission’s decision, Mr. Baird said. That appears unlikely, because the Bush administration has said it supports states’ right to decide on drilling.

At a Shell gas station in San Francisco charging $4.89 for a gallon of regular unleaded gas — one of the highest prices in the city — Carlos Vasquez said he had previously opposed offshore drilling because of environmental concerns. But the 41-year-old lawyer said the recent rise in gas prices changed his mind. “Anything [President Bush] can do to help alleviate the perceived or real lack in supply of oil — even if it takes a little while to take effect — I think that’s the right move,” Mr. Vasquez said. “It’s a risk we ought to take…at this point.”

Resistance to stepped-up drilling is still fierce, especially in Santa Barbara. “The idea that more drilling will significantly change the cost of gas, even down the road, just doesn’t make sense,” says J. Abraham Powell, president of Get Oil Out, a local advocacy group. However, he says pressure is coming from “oil friendly” Republican officials in the county.

A nonprofit group, called Stop Oil Seeps, is mounting a public campaign to spread its message that more drilling could reduce natural seepage that pollutes the air and leaves sticky tar deposits on beaches.

One Stop Oil Seeps supporter is Bill Rogers, a 66-year-old Santa Barbara attorney who was active in Get Oil Out many years ago. “The environmental activists today are still stuck in the 1969 oil spill. There are many factual changes they choose to ignore, and they are basically hostile to capitalism and the oil industry,” he says.

–Rhonda L. Rundle and Ian Talley contributed to this article.

Write to Stu Woo at [email protected] and Siobhan Hughes at [email protected]

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