Schwarzenegger ends support for offshore drilling

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday withdrew his support of a plan to expand oil drilling off the California coast, citing the massive oil spill that resulted from a drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

The announcement assures that no new drilling will take place off the state's coastline in the foreseeable future because Schwarzenegger would have to include the drilling proposal in his May revision of the state budget.

Speaking at a news conference near Sacramento, the governor said television images of the oil spill in the Gulf have changed his mind about the safety of ocean-based oil platforms.

"You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster, you say to yourself, 'Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?'" Schwarzenegger said.

The Republican governor had proposed expanding oil drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara County to help close the state's $20 billion budget deficit. Democrats last year blocked a similar proposal, but Schwarzenegger renewed his support, saying it was a reliable way to increase revenue as the state grapples with an ongoing fiscal crisis.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger said his support had been based on numerous studies finding it was safe to drill. But now, "I see on TV, the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil spill, oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem," the governor said.

A drilling deal struck in 2008 between some environmental groups and Plains Exploration & Production Co., known as PXP, was estimated to bring the state some $100 million a year. The Houston-based company was going to slant-drill up to 30 new shafts into state waters from an existing platform that is sitting in federal waters.

The governor's budget had set aside the $100 million from anticipated oil revenues to keep state parks open in the next fiscal year.

Schwarzenegger said he would find another way to plug the state's budget deficit.

"If I have a choice to make up $100 million and what I see in Gulf of Mexico, I'd rather find a way to make up that $100 million."

Scott Winters, a spokesman for PXP, did not immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail seeking comment.

Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland of Thousand Oaks said it was unfair for the governor to compare the type of drilling proposed in the Tranquillon Ridge area off California's coast to the drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

"They are two completely different types of drilling. In the Gulf they had to use floating platforms because of deep waters. T-ridge is only 1,000 feet deep and the platforms would be fixed," Strickland said. "If we don't drill oil here, then we have to import it from overseas, which also has a big risk of oil spills."

California's drilling plan still needed final approval from the three-member State Lands Commission. Schwarzenegger has one appointee and one ally on the commission, newly installed Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado. Schwarzenegger's announcement Thursday means all three commissioners are likely to oppose any efforts to expand offshore drilling.

The California coast was not part of President Barack Obama's announcement a month ago when he said he wanted to expand oil drilling off the Atlantic coast and in eastern portions of the Gulf. Including California would have been too difficult politically because of strong opposition within the state's congressional delegation and with environmental groups in the state.

A 1969 blowout on a Union Oil Co. platform off Santa Barbara fouled miles of ocean and beaches and led to a moratorium on offshore drilling.

Currently, 27 platforms operate off the Central and Southern California coasts. They produced 13.3 million barrels of oil in 2009.

The PXP plan split environmental groups in California. Some conservation groups threw their support behind the plan in exchange for a promise that PXP's operations would end in 2022.

Environmental Defense Center attorney Linda Krop, who represents the groups that signed the agreement with PXP, said PXP agreed to shut down existing oil production from three offshore platforms in nine years and a fourth platform in 14 years.

"We're very mystified. We had a plan that would have eliminated the risk of an oil spill," said Krop, who was taken aback by Schwarzenegger's announcement.

But others worried the deal would open the door to expanded drilling along the entire California coastline.

"I don't care when someone is converted to oppose offshore oil drilling, I'm just pleased when it happens," Assemblyman Pedro Nava said after hearing about the governor's decision. The Democrat from Santa Barbara has been a vocal opponent of the proposed oil drilling.

The project was rejected by the State Lands Commission in early 2009 with the help of former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a Democrat. Since then, Garamendi was elected to Congress and Maldonado, a Republican who as a state senator represented a long strip of the Central California coast, took his place.

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Associated Press writers Alicia Chang in Los Angeles and Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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