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Northern California Offshore Drilling Ban Possible

Environmental concerns seem to be trumping energy security needs when it comes to the issue of drilling in the waters off two pristine Northern California counties 100 miles up the coast from San Francisco, according to stakeholders on both sides of the issue.

The betting right now is that a U.S. House-passed measure to extend two marine sanctuaries covering federal waters off Sonoma and Mendocino counties will be passed by the Senate, which could vote soon on the issue.

The Sacramento-based Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), which restricts its lobbying to state and local issues, has reiterated the stance of most stakeholders in California that trying to open drilling in that area -- no matter what the economic advantages and environmental safeguards might be -- would not make any sense in the current political environment.

"The issue of offshore oil production in California in our view is settled for the time being," WSPA spokesperson Tupper Hull told NGI. "If asked, we will certainly point out there is a tremendous amount of energy out there, and we think it would have a beneficial effect on the marketplace and that it could be done safely in an environmentally sensitive way." But Hull said his group doesn't actively seek to influence policy or public opinion on the issue.

"You won't see any proposals to expand offshore activities coming out of our shop," said Hull, noting that the current move in Congress was somewhat of a surprise to his association, the oldest petroleum association in the United States. It is a nonprofit trade group representing approximately 30 companies that account for the bulk of petroleum exploration, production, refining, transportation and marketing in six western states -- Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Since the bill's passage in the House April 1, environmental representatives, such as Richard Charter with Defenders of Wildlife, said the door has "opened to the national significance" of the Northern California waters after decades of fighting off attempts to expand exploration from the central and southern coasts of the state, according to a report Tuesday in the Christian Science Monitor.

If the current legislative proposal is approved, it would double the size of two existing national marine sanctuaries near San Francisco and Marin counties, called the Cordell Bank and Gulf of Farallones, respectively. As is the region's onshore combination of seashore, redwood forests, rolling hills and wine country, offshore Northern California terrain under the sea is equally unique, according to the Monitor report.

Despite the increasing energy demand and the fact that the United States replaces each amount of oil that it can't produce domestically with an equivalent amount of increased oil imports, WSPA President Joe Sparano told the Monitor. "We have respect for what appears to be a very strong and clear signal from the public" that it doesn't want drilling off Northern California and in other untapped West Coast waters.

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