Court Decision Blocking Offshore CA Drilling Appealed

The Bush administration is petitioning the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to review a federal judge's decision in June that blocked oil and natural gas exploration off the coast of California until the state's Coastal Commission could assess the environmental impact of future drilling activity.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland prohibited producers from moving forward with exploration and production activity on 36 undeveloped leases in federal waters offshore California until the California Coastal Commission can review the impact on water quality, marine life, air quality and scenic vistas. The decision did not affect production that already was under way in California waters and on developed federal tracts (see NGI, July 2).

The lawsuit, which was brought in late 1999 by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer on behalf of the state commission and Gov. Gray Davis against the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Minerals Management Service (MMS), claimed that the decision by MMS to unilaterally extend the terms of the leases without first requiring the producers to submit "consistency certifications" to the state coastal agency violated federal coastal and environmental laws. Interior argued that MMS could take this action without seeking prior review from the state.

Wilken's ruling, however, affirmed the state of California's right to prior review. The Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal last Monday in Wilken's court on behalf of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, DOI and MMS, and has submitted a protective notice of appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

The Bush administration's decision to appeal Wilken's ruling has come under attack, with some saying it flies in the face of the president's avowed support for states' rights. "President Bush says he supports states' rights and local control. Then why does he oppose giving California the right to decide whether these...leases should be extended?" asked Senior Attorney Drew Caputo of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

"By appealing the judge's ruling, the administration is trying to take away the state's right to make that determination. It is hard to square the administration's rhetoric about states' right with the appeal," he said.

Furthermore, Caputo noted that despite the state's energy problems, most Californians want to protect their coastline, not drill it. "Trying to overturn this decision shows just how out of step the Bush administration is with the needs and views of Californians."

The California Coastal Commission is caught in the midst of controversy as well. A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled last April that the commission was unconstitutional as currently configured. The court ruled that the California legislature appoints too many commissioners to state agencies that operate as part of the executive branch. That ruling has been appealed by the Davis administration.

MMS estimates that in the past 32 years, the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf has produced more than 950 MMbbl of oil and 1.1 Tcf of natural gas. It projects that about 400 MMboe remains to be recovered from 43 producing leases and as much as another billion from currently undeveloped leases.

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