WASHINGTON — Two California Democrats on Thursday said they would try to end any prospect for new drilling for gas and oil off the central California coast by letting energy companies swap their leases for similar rights in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., will introduce legislation to allow energy companies that hold 36 leases that the federal government granted decades ago to obtain credits for their investment that they could apply to oil and gas exploration in the central and western Gulf of Mexico. The bill would include four other leases that had been canceled but are tied up in court.
The bill would permanently ban drilling in the tracts that range from northern Ventura County to southern San Luis Obispo County, Boxer said.
The lease sites “would become an ecological preserve, never more to be touched,” Boxer said.
The swap would cost the government $1 billion to $2.8 billion, she said.
Boxer said her staff has been assured by some of the energy companies that they back the swap. She said she will try to make her measure part of a broad energy bill that the Senate will take up in early March.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, whose district would be most affected by new drilling, will sponsor a similar bill in the House of Representatives.
Boxer, Capps and 30 other California lawmakers on Thursday also filed legal documents in a lawsuit over the leases. A federal judge last year halted all oil and natural gas exploration, siding with California officials who adamantly oppose new drilling and who argued that the state has authority to restrict new exploration. The decision left energy companies wondering whether they simply would lose the money they have invested.
The Bush administration recently decided to appeal last year’s court ruling, arguing that the lease owners’ property rights are at stake. The lawmakers oppose the appeal.
“This ... is about local control and California’s right to be at the table when the federal government is making decisions that affect its coastline,” Capps said. “We cannot risk another oil spill off of our coast.”
President George Bush banned new drilling off California’s coast in 1990 and President Clinton later extended it to 2012. But those presidential edicts did not cover existing oil platforms or the 40 leases on tracts that have yet to be developed. The leases allow for exploration, but no drilling.
Boxer’s legislation would require all the lease holders to agree to the swap and to end all outstanding lawsuits over the leases. If those conditions are met, the Secretary of the Interior would be directed to cancel the leases and offer equivalent rights off the coast of Louisiana and Texas, where oil platforms are more numerous.
Jim Bray, a spokesman for lease holder Nuevo Energy of Houston, said his company would consider a swap, although he has not seen Boxer’s legislation. “But our message to the senator has been, ’This has been going on for 20 years,”’ Bray said. “It’s time to move forward.”
On the Net:
Rep. Capps: http://www.house.gov/capps