California May Have A Way To Block Trump's Offshore Drilling Push In the 1980s, California towns used local zoning rules to block offshore oil and gas drilling. State lawmakers are considering a similar strategy to push back against the Trump administration.

California May Have A Way To Block Trump's Offshore Drilling Push

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President Trump's administration plans to make it easier for oil companies to drill offshore. But more than a dozen states opposed those plans. The drilling would happen in federally controlled waters, which limits how much states can do about it, and yet, California has blocked similar drilling in the past. Lauren Sommer of member station KQED has the story of how.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: The last time the West Coast was open for offshore oil drilling was in the early 1980s under President Ronald Reagan.


SOMMER: It was a priority for his interior secretary, James Watt.


JAMES WATT: We have enough energy to meet America's needs for thousands of years - thousands of years - if we will have a government that will allow for its reasonable development.

SOMMER: It was not welcome news for John Laird. Today, he's California's secretary for natural resources, but at the time, he was mayor of Santa Cruz, a small coastal city south of San Francisco.

JOHN LAIRD: He said we're going to do this, and, basically, we're going to run you over, and we had to respond in kind.

SOMMER: He called a meeting with drilling opponents, and everyone agreed - their response had to have some teeth.

LAIRD: And I really struggled thinking, teeth? We're a city, and this is a federal government wanting to do this with tacit approval of the state government.

SOMMER: But then something occurred to him - when oil companies drill offshore, they still need infrastructure onshore, things like pipelines and helicopter pads. And who controls the zoning to allow that? It's cities. So Santa Cruz put a measure on the ballot that said if an oil company wanted to build facilities on land, residents would have to vote on it first. It passed, and then the city hired a guy, Dan Haifley, to spread the idea, like an anti-oil Johnny Appleseed.

DAN HAIFLEY: So I would sleep on couches, and I would travel the state in my little car, a tiny little thing.

SOMMER: He visited local officials along the coast, slide projector in hand.

HAIFLEY: It was grassroots democracy and grassroots activism at its best.

SOMMER: In all, he got 26 cities and counties to adopt similar policies. Even today, oil companies can't build new infrastructure without voter approval in most of those places. That creates what Haifley calls...

HAIFLEY: A coastal wall of resistance.

SOMMER: Now that the Trump administration has proposed new oil leasing off the California coast, the idea is back.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good afternoon. The assembly session is called to order.

SOMMER: State legislators are considering a bill that would ban new oil pipelines and piers in state-controlled waters, which go out three miles offshore. California's lieutenant governor has also threatened to block any pipeline permits to transport oil. So would that give an oil company pause?

BOB FRYKLUND: Absolutely. I mean, it - the companies look at that. They look at the ease of operation.

SOMMER: Bob Fryklund is with IHS Markit, which does oil industry consulting. But that coastal wall of resistance may not work as well this time around. Fryklund says technology has improved and now companies can get oil without having to build a pipeline to shore. They just use a floating oil rig of sorts.

FRYKLUND: You have a giant ship that fills up full of oil, and then it goes off either to a nearby port and refinery within that country or off somewhere else. And that's pretty standard operations around the world.

SOMMER: But it's more expensive, so oil companies would have to be enticed by large oil reserves and high oil prices to make that worth it. For now, the industry still has to see how much oil there might be off the U.S. coast. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.


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