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Environment & Science

Low public support, high costs may make offshore drilling unlikely in CA




385757 05: Night comes to the Hogan, left, and Houchin oil and gas platform near the Federal Ecological Reserve in the Santa Barbara Channel, February 16, 2001, near Santa Barbara, CA. In recent months the state Coastal Commission has argued against the federal government in its lawsuit over offshore oil exploration, a case that could lead to more drilling near a marine sanctuary or leave up to 1 billion barrels of oil untapped. The tourism-heavy area relies on its coast to attract visitors and has been sensitive to oil drilling since a 3.3 million gallon spill from a platform in 1969 spawned an anti-drilling movement. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers)
385757 05: Night comes to the Hogan, left, and Houchin oil and gas platform near the Federal Ecological Reserve in the Santa Barbara Channel, February 16, 2001, near Santa Barbara, CA. In recent months the state Coastal Commission has argued against the federal government in its lawsuit over offshore oil exploration, a case that could lead to more drilling near a marine sanctuary or leave up to 1 billion barrels of oil untapped. The tourism-heavy area relies on its coast to attract visitors and has been sensitive to oil drilling since a 3.3 million gallon spill from a platform in 1969 spawned an anti-drilling movement. (Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers)
David McNew/Getty Images

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When Trump administration announced plans to expand offshore drilling in places like the Pacific Ocean on Thursday, the response from California leaders was a resounding: no.

KPCC's environment reporter Emily Guerin joined Take Two to talk about the kinds of offshore drilling that already exist in Southern California, and what motivates companies to expand drilling in the first place.

Interview highlights

Offshore drilling isn't new to Southern California. Where does it happen already?

There are 27 offshore platforms already off the coast of California. They're all in Southern California, so that's from Santa Barbara County and south.

Also you know in Long Beach Harbor those weird looking islands in the harbor? Those are also offshore drilling platforms.

They kind of look like luxury hotels: they've got the palm trees, one of them even has a waterfall. They disguise the oil rigs.

Those are all in state waters – so that's within 3 miles of the coast – and the state has jurisdiction there. There's been no drilling, more or less, in state waters since 1969. It's officially been banned since 1994.

But what we're talking about, what the announcement was about yesterday, are the oil platforms further off shore like you see off the coast of Santa Barbara.

What are the environmental risks?

When companies are trying to figure out where is a good place to drill for oil, they do what's called a seismic survey, which is kind of like an ultrasound of the ocean floor. They use sound waves to figure out what the oil and gas reservoirs are. This can be really loud and harmful to marine mammals.

Once drilling and oil production starts, there's obviously a risk of spills. Both oil spills, like we saw with the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, but also just from the other fluids that are use in oil drilling.

So the fluid you use to keep the drill running smooth, and also a lot of water that comes up with oil that's a lot saltier than regular ocean water is frequently slightly radioactive, too, and that can spill.

How do people feel about offshore drilling? I can imagine that there's not a lot of public support.

Well, not in California. Sixty-nine percent of Californians oppose offshore drilling, according to a 2017 survey by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California.

What I think is interesting about this is support for offshore drilling actually appears to be falling pretty fast. It's down 11 percentage points just from last year's survey alone.

Are there tools communities can use to try to prevent a rig from going up?

Any sort of infrastructure that companies are building in the federal waters like a pipeline has to cross through the state waters to get onshore.

So I was talking to the spokeswoman for the state lands commission – they have jurisdiction over those state waters – she said that her agency might be able to make it difficult for companies to transport any new oil produced in the federal waters, like if they need a new pipeline or a bigger pipeline.

Emily, before you became our environment reporter, you covered the oil and gas industry in North Dakota for years. So you've talked to a lot of companies about where they decide to drill, and why. What have you learned?

When I lived in North Dakota, I'd go these public meetings  and there would be these oil company guys there asking for a lower tax rate on oil and gas, or less restrictive regulations, saying you know, "This is what's going to make or break it for them in North Dakota."

But what I found was, there were two things.

It was: how good the geology was, so was there actually a lot of oil to extract? And then: what was the price of oil?

The oil industry is so price-driven that when the price is high, companies will go to these really extreme lengths and they'll put up with really high taxes, really onerous regulations to get the oil out. And when the price is low, they won't.

So with this proposal from the Department of Interior, they're just proposing to offer companies the opportunity to bid on the right to drill for oil in the year 2020 for the first time in 30 years.

That doesn't mean we'll actually see drilling off the coast. It means there's a chance, and a lot depends on the economics and if companies think they can make money doing that.



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