The massive oil spill along Orange County’s coast has triggered intense debate over the future of offshore oil rigs – with a local Republican legislator joining several Democratic lawmakers in opposing new offshore drilling.
And it’s already shaping up to be a key issue for next year’s election campaigns.
In California, new offshore drilling already is almost impossible to set up, with the state not issuing new permits needed to pipe oil to shore.
But existing oil rigs are getting their lifespans extended through federal permits for new equipment – and that’s now coming in the crosshairs of lawmakers.
This week, Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Clemente) renewed calls for a ban on new offshore drilling in federal waters off the coast – which is incorporated into the infrastructure bill Democrats are trying to pass in Congress.
Some state lawmakers are taking it a step further.
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Costa Mesa) and Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) are calling for an end to the existing offshore drilling in federal waters.
“California’s coastlines are too precious and too valuable to be exposing them to this level of risk,” Min told Voice of OC in an interview this week after he announced his position Monday.
Noting that new drilling leases off California haven’t been issued since 1969, Min said the existing drilling needs to stop.
“I think this spill illustrates the problem with having these pipelines, a lot of which have aging infrastructure and aging pipelines, right off our beautiful coast,” he said. “I think that past calls have been for moratoriums for new drilling…this is the first time anyone’s calling for ending existing drilling.”
“Enough is enough, and it’s about time to do this thing.”
In a tweet Sunday, Petrie-Norris called to “#stopoffshoredrilling” off of California – and reiterated in a Wednesday news release that she’s calling “for an end to offshore drilling in federal waters on the California coast.”
Some local Republicans also have been raising concerns about the drilling.
On Wednesday, Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen (R-Fountain Valley) told Voice of OC she opposed new offshore drilling in a 2017 letter to then-President Donald Trump, whose administration was considering opening up new leases.
At a Tuesday news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared along with 11 other Orange County officials from the local, state and federal level, most of whom called for an end to any new offshore drilling.
“We need to grow up and out of this dependency,” Newsom said while calling for a shift to alternative sources of energy.
“This tragedy did not need to happen.”
Nguyen tweeted on Wednesday she was “disappointed” she wasn’t invited to Newsom’s news conference, adding it “was held with only Democratic elected officials.”
The debate surrounding offshore drilling already is shaping up to be a key issue for next year’s elections — especially for OC’s Congressional seats.
Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Huntington Beach) dodged questions this week about whether she supports new drilling bans, saying her focus is on the cleanup.
“Our priority is that we’re going to make all these beaches clean,” Steel said when asked about drilling bans at a Monday news conference.
When reporters again asked her if she supports drilling bans, she said: “You know what, we have to really clean the beaches right now. So that’s the most important thing that we have to do right now.”
Asked if she supports drilling bans, Steel’s office on Wednesday said her focus is on “enforcing rules and regulations already in place, and when companies and ship operators break these rules and our public trust, they need to be held accountable for the damage they’ve done.”
“Rep. Steel has always supported and championed efforts to protect our coastline,” said Steel spokeswoman Danielle Stewart.
Steel is the only one of OC’s seven Congressional representatives to get personal income from oil production, according to a Voice of OC review of the most recent federal disclosures.
Among the $5,500 to $16,000 in oil production income Steel reported receiving last year was between $1 and $200 from Phillips 66, the biggest customer of Amplify Energy, the company whose pipe leaked last weekend off the coast of the district she represents.
Steel also reported royalty income last year from oil giant BP – whose 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil leak was one of the largest in U.S. history – as well as ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum.
A Steel spokesman didn’t have a comment about her oil income when contacted by Voice of OC.
Her Democrat predecessor and current challenger, Harley Rouda, reported owning over $100,000 in stock of an oil futures investment fund in 2019, which makes money through betting on the future price of oil in the industry.
Rouda this week called for a stop to all oil drilling on federal land.
When asked about Rouda’s investments in the oil futures fund, his spokeswoman denied he ever profited off oil.
“Harley has never profited off of the production of oil, especially oil that’s produced in Southern California like the one that’s spilling over our shores right now,” said his campaign spokeswoman Alyssa Napuri.
“Michelle Steel, for years, was able to profit off of the oil production off the shores of our coast – the coast she represents – and has for however many years she’s been a public servant.”
Steel’s campaign responded by saying Rouda was lying.
“The former congressman’s statement is yet another reminder as to why voters kicked him out of office in the first place,” said Steel campaign spokesman Lance Trover.
Steel and Rouda’s predecessor, Dana Rohrabacher, was an outspoken supporter of offshore drilling, at one point proposing cities get a cut of the oil revenue as a way to incentivize more drilling.
During a 1991 diving boat trip organized by the owner of an offshore drilling platform, Rohrabacher declared the dive “ ‘confirms for me’ that oil platforms such as Edith pose no environmental harm and help fill a crucial economic need,” according to an LA Times article at the time.
Coastal legislators are now striking a far different tone.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Levin called again for a ban on all new offshore drilling, calling it “the only foolproof way to stop a spill like this.”
Meanwhile, members of Congress are gearing up for hearings next week on oil pipeline safety.
Three Orange County Representatives – Levin, Katie Porter, and Alan Lowenthal – serve on the committee conducting the hearings – the House Natural Resources Committee.
At a Tuesday news conference, Loewnthal called for a federal ban on offshore drilling.
“Where there’s drilling, there will be spilling.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.