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Federal Judge Prohibits Drilling Off California

Less than 24 hours after a state panel rejected offshore drilling, a federal judge in California on Aug. 12 blocked exploratory drilling off the central California coast from Oxnard north to San Luis Obispo until there are more extensive environmental risk assessments completed. That process could take years, according to news media reports on the ruling.

The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously Aug. 11 to oppose federal efforts to extend three dozen oil/natural gas leases off the state's central coast, drawing on an earlier federal appeals court decision authorizing the coastal panel's review of the matter.

The 12-member coastal panel headed by an appointee of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger concluded that federal authorities have "failed to provide sufficient information" on potential for oil spills and other environmental risks, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The dispute involves 36 offshore oil tracts that were leased to companies decades ago but never developed.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken's ruling at a hearing in Oakland caught federal officials off guard, but caused 10 environmental groups challenging the potential opening up of new exploratory drilling to declare that the ruling "means our coast remains protected," according to a report in the Aug. 13 edition of the LA Times, which indicated if the federal government appeals, a decision is not expected before late next year.

While the rest of California's coastline is protected by a moratorium on drilling imposed by Congress and a Presidential order, the 36 central coast leases were completed before the moratorium was in place, so they involve the only part of the offshore California lease areas that haven't been designated as off-limits.

The remaining leases were originally established to expire more than 15 years ago, but the federal Minerals Management Service repeatedly has extended them over the site officials' objections, the Times reported.

With the emphasis in the new 2005 federal Energy Policy Act on stepping up domestic energy production and with the prices of oil and natural gas at unprecedented levels, the exploration/development companies want to drill on the previously unused leases. But the coastal commission's vote authorizes the panel to return to court immediately, if the federal officials ignore the panel's objections, the LA Times reported.

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