West Coast senators seek ban on Pacific offshore drilling

By:  Kyung M. Song
Source: The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Washington state sits on no known oil reserves, and no oil rigs dot its coast.

Yet the state's two U.S. senators Thursday joined their colleagues from California and Oregon to propose permanently outlawing oil and natural-gas drilling in the outer Pacific shores.

The legislation's immediate catalyst was the Deepwater Horizon rig blast, which continues to contaminate the Gulf of Mexico with an undersea crude-oil leak.

But the bill's six sponsors — all Democrats — also aim to take a unified stance against any larger plans to drill the nation's way out of dependence on fossil fuels.

Just a day earlier, the Senate unveiled a much-delayed climate and energy bill that, among other things, encourages boosting domestic oil production by drilling in more offshore waters.

Some states, including California and Virginia, had been eager to supplement their budgets with their share of the revenue from allowing new drilling off their shores.

But since the Gulf disaster, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for a plan to allow new wells to be drilled from an existing platform off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Sen. Maria Cantwell said the United States made a mistake in 2008 when President George W. Bush proposed, and Congress allowed, rescinding a 27-year ban on new drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, along with the Gulf of Mexico off Flordia. .

That reversal was fueled by $4-a-gallon gasoline as well as charges by Republicans that lack of domestic drilling was partly to blame for soaring oil prices.

In March, President Obama proposed allowing new offshore drilling, but excluded the West Coast and some sensitive areas such as Alaska's fish-rich Bristol Bay.

A month later, Obama halted any new offshore-drilling projects unless rigs have new safeguards to prevent another massive oil leak like the one spreading in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We tried to point out that offshore drilling would never lower gas prices or impact our foreign dependence on oil," Cantwell said. "We were right all along in opposing offshore drilling."

Cantwell appeared at a news conference at the Capitol with Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both of California, as well as Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Two other sponsors, Sen. Patty Murray, and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, did not attend.

Feinstein recalled "thick black tar"despoiling the waters after the 1969 oil spill near Santa Barbara, which helped spawn the modern environmental movement.

Absent a permanent ban on drilling, "there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will not happen again," Feinstein said.

Americans use $1 billion of foreign oil each day, about 60 percent of their total consumption. Declaring the Pacific outer continental shelf — which spans 200 miles from the shore — off-limits to oil and natural-gas exploration could eliminate about 10.5 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, according to a 2006 estimate by the federal Minerals Management Service.

That's 12 percent of the total believed to be recoverable from the entire U.S. coastline. But such calculations are highly unreliable, and officials acknowledge the actual untapped oil reserves could be much higher, or much less.

Advocates for more domestic drilling say the proposed West Coast ban would lead to even more imported oil.

"This is more of the same that we've had for 30 years" under the federal ban, said Dan Kish, senior vice president of policy for the Institute for Energy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that believes tapping into America's petroleum potential is one answer to energy independence.

Kish said it was particularly galling that California wants to cordon off its coasts when it's the nation's largest energy user. He said polls show the majority of American favor offshore drilling.

Blocking new oil explorations, Kish said, may simply send more ocean tankers carrying foreign oil toward California and elsewhere.