Government moves to overturn ruling blocking oil exploration

By David Kravets The Associated Press
Friday January 11, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — The Bush administration urged a federal appeals court Thursday to overturn a court order halting proposed oil and natural gas exploration off California’s central coast. 

The government’s brief to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came in response to a federal judge’s June decision that blocked exploration off San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. 

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s decision stopped attempts to build the first new oil platforms off California’s coast since 1994. No drilling to explore for oil deposits has been conducted since 1989. 

The judge, a Clinton-era appointee, said the area cannot be drilled or explored until the federal government studies the environmental impacts and the California Coastal Commission approves of the plan. 

The federal government estimates there is enough oil in the area to run California’s refineries for two years and fuel five months worth of the state’s natural gas demands. Those estimates are about one-fifth the amount of energy within Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is being considered for drilling. 

California Gov. Gray Davis sued to block the coastal exploration days after President Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt extended the offshore oil leases for ten years in 1999 as they were set to expire. The lawsuit contended that Babbitt’s decision was subject to review by the state under a federal law giving California authority to determine whether offshore drilling in federal waters is consistent with the state’s coastal protection plans. 

Oil companies have paid $1.25 billion to the federal government for the 40 leases in dispute. Each covers about a nine square-mile expanse of ocean. The leases, which have yet to be turned into oil-producing platforms, were issued between 1968 and 1984. Four of them expired in 1999 with no moves to renew them. 

In its papers to the appeals court, the government said Wilken erred when she ruled that leases could be extended only upon California’s approval and proper environmental review. The administration added that environmental reviews would be conducted before the sites are developed or explored. 

But Drew Caputo, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the leases allow sonar exploration on at least one site to analyze the structure of the seabed. 

“Sea otters and other creatures are very sensitive to noise,” Caputo said. 

Gov. Gray Davis said he is opposing the offshore leases. “The governor will fight tooth and nail to protect California’s coast,” Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said. 

The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which is handling the case, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. 

Oil exploration off California’s coast has been an explosive issue since 1969, when a massive oil spill soiled the Santa Barbara and Ventura county coastlines. 

The case is California v. Norton, C99-04964.