GREEN CITY When U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar looked out at a sea of faces during a San Francisco public hearing April 16, a band of activists dressed as polar bears, sea turtles, and other marine creatures stood out from the rest. Their message, also articulated by a host of federal and state-elected officials, was unequivocally clear: no new oil and gas drilling off the California coast.
Waving a thick document in the air, Salazar explained that he'd inherited a five-year plan from the Bush administration to award new leases for oil and gas drilling in the federally controlled outer continental shelf, which comprises some 1.7 billion underwater acres off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska.
Rather than move the policy as planned, Salazar extended public comment for six months, met with stakeholders in each region, and placed greater emphasis on developing offshore renewable energy. The San Francisco public hearing was the last in a series of four that Salazar attended.
"One of the significant issues that is so important to President Obama is that we move forward with a new energy frontier," Salazar said. He advocated embracing offshore wind and other renewable alternatives as part of a "comprehensive energy plan going forward." Yet Salazar also indicated that future plans for the nation's energy mix were "not to the exclusion of oil and gas," and mentioned that opportunities for "clean coal" technology should also be considered.
Under the five-year plan, three new leases are proposed off California's coast two in the south, and one in the Point Arena Basin, an underwater swath near Fort Bragg. Elected officials unanimously opposed any new offshore petroleum development. "Our state clearly is saying to you today, no," declared Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Instead of putting our California coast and economy in jeopardy, we need to look at ... green technology which will bring us new jobs."
Lt. Gov. John Garamendi sounded a similar note, saying the billions that would be invested in offshore oil could be put toward advancing clean energy. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) highlighted the risk of oil spills around the Point Arena Basin. "It could be turned from a wellspring of life into a death plume," she said. "This shimmering band of coast must be protected."
While nearly every testimony blasted new offshore oil development, the conversation brightened when Salazar asked for comments on renewable energy. According to estimates by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, offshore wind in shallow areas could provide some 20 percent of the electricity needs of coastal states nationwide. Wave energy, while still under study, might one day generate enough electricity to power some 197 million homes per year, according to Department of the Interior estimates.
Most of the oil that could be extracted from the outer continental shelf would come from the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, with some 10 billion barrels potentially available off the Pacific coast. Joe Sporano of the Western States Petroleum Association said offshore drilling could create jobs and limit dependence on foreign oil. Yet Boxer pointed out that, based on Energy Information Administration figures, drilling for oil across all areas would yield just 1 percent of the nation's total oil consumption by 2030 and it's not believed to make a real difference in gas prices.
Richard Charter, government relations consultant with Defenders of Wildlife, seemed confident that California's coast would be protected. "You have a new interior secretary for an administration that received California electoral votes ... in a state that is pretty much single-minded in its position in terms of saving the coast," he said.
Charter's optimism was helped by a recent federal appeals court ruling against the previous administration's plan to award new offshore-drilling leases in the Arctic.
So now, "whatever Secretary Salazar does will have his own stamp on it," Charter said. "In each of these hearings, it's become apparent that the Obama administration may be coming around to a new approach."
Public comment for the offshore leasing plan ends in late September. Salazar told reporters that he expects a decision by the end of the year.