California teetering on the brink of ending offshore oil drilling, as bill triumphs over first legislative snag

President Joe Biden’s energy agenda is unapologetically green in color, leaving no stone unturned to spur rapid climate action and reach the Paris Agreement goals. When observed through the climate agenda lens, Senator Dave Min’s bill to stop offshore oil drilling in California’s waters is another stepping stone toward Biden’s ultimate decarbonization and clean energy goals. This bill has now passed its first major legislative hurdle.

Offshore oil rigs in Southern California; Credit: Drew Bird Photography

At the end of December 2022, several environmental organizations, including Oceana, expressed their opposition to further lease sales, reminding that Biden promised during his presidential campaign to end new leasing for offshore drilling while the International Energy Agency said that nations need to stop developing new oil and gas fields if global warming was to stay within relatively safe limits.

In a bid to fulfill his climate pledges, Biden’s administration came up with a final program for 2024-2029, containing the lowest number of offshore oil and gas lease sales in American history. With only three lease sales in the pipeline, the new plan aims to phase down oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and ensure rapid growth of offshore wind.

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California is taking steps to put an end to offshore drilling with Senator Dave Min’s Senate Bill (SB) 559, which would require the California State Lands Commission to take immediate steps to terminate the remaining leases for offshore oil drilling in California state waters. The bill passed out of its first legislative committee last week, overcoming its first legislative stumbling block with a 7-3 vote in the State Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, chaired by Senator Min.

Senator Min outlined: “As the 2021 oil spill off the coast of Orange County starkly illustrated (as did the 2015 Refugio Beach oil spill), offshore drilling poses a clear and immediate threat to our beautiful beaches and our vibrant $44 billion a year coastal economy.

“These offshore oil rigs, which were built between the 1960s and 1980s, are long past their shelf life, and the wildcat oil companies that now operate these rigs have no incentives to invest meaningfully in their safety and soundness. We simply cannot afford to have more oil spills, and SB 559 provides an immediate pathway towards shutting these offshore oil platforms down.”

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Back in 2022, Senator Min introduced the first version of the bill, which was held in the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Last year, he reintroduced the bill and held it while the Lands Commission worked on its study of the potential costs of shutting down and decommissioning these platforms.

With an update of that study now in hand, the bill would require the State Lands Commission to finalize negotiations for voluntary relinquishment of oil and gas leases. If an agreement is not made by December 31, 2026, the bill requires the commission to terminate the leases and pay fair compensation if warranted.

Brady Bradshaw, Oceans Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, remarked: “This bill is critical to warding off more devastating spills from the oil industry’s decrepit, corroding infrastructure.

“Offshore drilling is a public nuisance that’s already done horrific damage to our beautiful coastline, wildlife and the vital coastal economy. We have to ensure that companies pay promptly to clean up their own pollution rather than dumping their toxic messes on Californians.”

California has three remaining oil platforms in operation off the Coast of Orange County – Eva, Emmy, and Ester – which were constructed between 1963 and 1985. The trio has lasted decades beyond their intended lifespans, according to Senator Min.

The Golden State is laying the groundwork to reach net-zero carbon emissions and 100% clean electricity by 2045 to achieve its climate goals. Governor Newsom threw his support behind a lawsuit that was filed in San Francisco County Superior Court last year against ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute (API).

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This legal challenge was unleashed for these six players for their alleged role in minimizing and giving little weight to the potential threats the development and extraction of fossil fuels pose for climate and the environment.