Public officials throughout the state of California have made headlines for loudly opposing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke's decision to approve offshore drilling in California and throughout the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf region.
This move is part of the Trump administration's broader plans to lease record amounts of offshore areas in the Gulf of Mexico and open up the Atlantic Ocean for drilling. Many city governments, county governments, the California Assembly, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and Governor Jerry Brown have all come out against Zinke's plan. Less discussed, though, is the fact that companies are already drilling offshore in southern California, an area perhaps better known for its popular beaches and oceanside resort cities.
Some of those offshore platforms are visible during a trip along Highway 1, the famed Pacific Coast Highway. More of those lease holdings are owned by ExxonMobil than any other company, according to a review of U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management leasing data for the Pacific region. However, Koch Industries is also already a player in drilling off the California coast.
In all, some 188,869 acres of offshore land are dedicated to drilling in the Golden State. Production occurs on 38 different lease holdings. All of these leasings were put in place before the federal government enacted a moratorium on new drilling in California in 1982. The ban arrived in the aftermath of a massive offshore oil spill near Santa Barbara in 1969. That spill, resulting from a well blowout under Union Oil Company's Platform A, spewed as much as 4.2 million gallons of crude into the Pacific Ocean.
After that oil spill, the California State Lands Commission, which has also come out against the Trump proposal, imposed a state ban on new leases in 1994 through the California Coastal Sanctuary Act. Drilling agreements on the books before 1982, however, have been allowed to continue, and that's where ExxonMobil, Koch, and other companies come into play.
Of the 38 leases, ExxonMobil is the lead designated operator on 16 of those. Koch, by comparison, is more of a minor player. The company owns a 10.4 percent stake in one offshore drilling operation run by Beta Offshore Company and a 3.7 percent stake in another operated by Freeport McMoran, both of which sit off the coast of Santa Barbara County.
Credits: U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)
While neither Koch Industries nor the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) branch in California have weighed in on the offshore drilling expansion under Trump, its New Hampshire chapter did celebrate the development in a January press release.
“Opponents of this proposal don’t have any plan to deliver affordable and reliable energy,” said AFP. “As the discussion on Secretary Zinke’s proposals goes forward, we should be mindful to let the needs of Granite Staters drive the debate, not hyperbole, speculation, or fearmongering.”
ExxonMobil has not made any public statements to date on the prospects of more drilling on the Pacific Coast. The company has been angling, though, for years to do more drilling on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in the South China Sea.
Given the drilling that is already taking place in the state, the California-based group Consumer Watchdog pointed out in a February 2017 report that offshore drilling has actually increased under the watch of Governor Brown. Brown is often described as the most environmentally friendly governor in the U.S.
“[O]il production continues from 1,366 offshore wells in existing leases, according to the California Department of Conservation,” reads the Watchdog report. “Since 2012, regulators issued about 238 permits for new wells in existing offshore leases, and 171 of those offshore wells are currently active.”
Despite the drilling currently happening off its coast, California appears poised to do everything within its power to stop offshore drilling from expanding in the state, as the Trump administration proposal would have. That includes denying zoning permits and other regulatory permits needed by cities and counties to participate in what is the complex business of high-volume offshore drilling.
Retired Navy commanders, too, have expressed concerns because offshore drilling in southern California could impact military preparations at its Camp Pendleton Base in Oceanside, located in San Diego County.
Main image: Offshore oil platform. Credit: National Energy Technology Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy