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Central Coast Reacts To Proposed Offshore Oil Drilling Plan

New offshore oil and gas wells could be coming to the coast of California.  The Trump Administration has proposed an expansion of drilling operations in nearly all federal waters. 

At the end of Monterey’s Commercial Wharf, there’s a tiny shack where you can buy abalone by the pound. Nearly all of the company's California Red Abalone is grown in the water, just beneath the wharf.

“Watch out it’s pretty slippery,” warns Monterey Abalone Company’s Andrew Kim.

I follow Kim down a ladder to the farm. The abalone spend at least four years growing in cages that hang from the wharf’s wooden planks. Winches move the cages in and out of the water so workers can feed the abalone kelp.

“It’s kind of a dark, dank environment down here, but the abalone really like this shaded environment,” says Kim.

The company has always felt safe operating here, right in the heart of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The area is federally protected, so any activity that threatens marine life, like abalone, is banned. That includes offshore oil drilling.  

But Kim is still concerned about the possibility of new oil and gas wells elsewhere in the state. The Trump Administration’s proposal would open up six spots along the coast of California, including two along the Central Coast. The exact locations aren’t public yet.

“I don’t feel good about it. An oil spill would be catastrophic to businesses like ours and fishermen,” Kim says. 

And he worries oil spills could affect the abalone suppliers he relies on from outside the Sanctuary.  Plus, there’s the simple reality of what happens when oil spills.  

“Oil, when it flows into the sea, doesn’t stay where it starts,” Margaret Spring says.  

Margaret Spring is the Chief Conservation Officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Looking out to the Monterey Bay, we see pristine water and harbor seals lounging on rocks.  Spring says this scene is possible because there’s no oil drilling here.

But the state does have 38 active offshore oil and gas leases, all off the southern California coast. It’s been more than thirty years since any new leases have been approved. Spring sees that as a sign Californians don’t want any more.

“So I think it’s just picking a fight that’s not necessary. We think that if we were able to bring the information about what’s at stake here to the administration, we hope that they would listen to us, and take us seriously that this is a place that needs to be protected,” says Spring.

The Aquarium is encouraging people to join its opposition to any expansion of offshore oil drilling. The online public comment period closes March 9.

But if the Trump Administration moves forward with this proposal, State Assemblymember Mark Stone says California has tools to fight back. I reached him by phone up in Sacramento.

“We’re going to have to rely on the regulations we have in place, and the regulatory agencies to push back and not allow for the expansion of any oil production offshore,” says Stone.

The state controls land from the shoreline to three nautical miles out. So even if the federal government approved a new oil well beyond that marker, the state could stop the oil from reaching land in California.

“So it’s going to be a lot harder if there are leases granted for oil drilling and oil production where there are not existing facilities to get land use approval to build onshore facilities. [It’s] something I think we can rally against and push back against, and something that the feds can not force,” says Stone.

Add to that, the California Coastal Commission would have a say in any proposed oil and gas leases, even in federal waters.

Each of the 22 states affected by this proposed expansion of offshore oil drilling will get one public hearing. California’s is February 8 in Sacramento.  

KAZU reached out to the California Independent Petroleum Association, which released a statement favorable of the Trump Administration’s proposal. The statement, from Chief Executive Officer Rock Zierman, said in part, “California has the nation’s strongest environmental protections so it makes sense to meet our energy needs here under these strict standards, instead of relying upon more imported oil that is produced without these protections.”

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.