California Coastal Sanctuary Act of 1994

On September 28, 1994, the California Coastal Sanctuary was created when Assembly Bill 2444 was signed into law. Introduced by then-Assemblymember Jack O’Connell, AB 2444 permanently prohibited new leases for oil and gas development in State waters, which extend from shore out to sea for 3 miles. The legislation replaced existing statutes and State Lands Commission policies that protected portions of the California coastline from leasing.  This bill also attempted to repeal an existing statute providing for lease boundary adjustments if the number of platforms would not be increased.  The repeal of this exemption, which applied to only one place in the State–the Ellwood Offshore Field– was removed by the Senate.  Finally, the bill only allowed for a new State lease to be issued if oil within State waters might be lost to adjacent (federal) wells, i.e. drainage.  This exemption, which was included to ensure that the State received its fair share of any royalty revenue, also only applied to one place in the State–the Tranquillon Ridge Oil Field near Lompoc. Thus, virtually the entire California mainland coast is now protected from new oil and gas leasing.

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Linda Krop in particular, played a critical role in the process that led to the passage of this bill.

Much water has passed under the bridge since the California Coastal Sanctuary was created 23 years ago, and, as intended, NO NEW LEASES have been issued in State waters; additionally, one of the exemptions to the Sanctuary has become essentially moot now that the Ellwood leases have been quitclaimed to the State.  And the California Coastal Sanctuary continues to grow –soon additional lease(s), encompassing 1,551 acres, off Ventura’s coastline will be added to the Sanctuary.

Santa Barbara County has faced a long history of oil development, beginning in the late 1800’s, with oil being produced from piers off of Summerland, to the infamous 1969 Oil Spill, when roughly 4 million gallons of crude oil spewed from Platform A into the marine environment, fouling miles of beaches and suffocating birds and marine mammals alike.  It has often been said that the 1969 Oil Spill marked the birth of the environmental movement, but it also had another silver lining which was that the State Lands Commission issued a moratorium halting additional leasing in State waters.  That moratorium lasted until 1981 when the State Lands Commission proposed to issue 8 new oil and gas leases stretching between Point Arguello and Point Conception, an important biologically diverse and undeveloped area, both on and offshore.  Much to the chagrin of environmental organizations and individuals, the State Lands Commission certified the Final Environmental Impact Report in September, 1982, and authorized the leasing process to move forward three months later. 

While the Lands Commission maintained that the leasing program did not need a coastal permit, it agreed to apply to the Coastal Commission for approval of the program.  The Coastal Commission heard the item three times, initially denying the permit.   Then, after some revisions, the Commission approved it.  Given the magnitude of the leasing program, and the controversy surrounding it, the community at large, led by the EDC, filed a lawsuit in Santa Barbara Superior Court.  As a result of the lawsuit, the Court ordered the Coastal Commission to set aside its approval and re-notice the item for another hearing.  That hearing, held on October 23, 1983, led to a denial of the proposed leasing program. 

The fact that: 1) the State Lands Commission had approved the leasing program; 2) Coastal Commission staff had recommended approval of the leasing at three different hearings; and 3) absent the lawsuit, the Coastal Commission would have approved the leasing program, made it clear to the environmental community that protection was needed for the Santa Barbara (and California) coastline, in spite of the environmental disaster wrought in 1969.  When the leasing program was originally approved by the State Lands Commission in December, 1982, Assemblymember Jack O’Connell had just won election to the State Assembly.  It would take an additional 12 years for AB 2444 to become law.

In the interim, the Exxon Valdez would, in 1989, spill 10.9 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska, and the American Trader Oil Tanker would, in 1990, spill 250,000 gallons of crude oil about 1.3 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach when one of the tanker’s hulls was punctured by its own anchor.  Shortly thereafter, Assembly Bill No. 888, which imposed a 3-year moratorium on new State leasing, was signed into law.  That law was set to expire in 1995. Given these events, it became clear to EDC that the time to push for a Coastal Sanctuary off California’s coast might finally have arrived.  EDC turned to then-Assemblyman Jack O’Connell and proposed to him that he author a bill to permanently protect California’s coast from further oil and gas leasing, and to ensure that as leases were returned, or quitclaimed, to the State that they, too, would become part of the Sanctuary.  Assemblymember O’Connell agreed to carry the bill and, in early 1994, introduced the measure which, with EDC’s help, made its way through the legislative process and onto the Governor’s desk later that year.

The creation of the California Coastal Sanctuary was a significant environmental victory; however, EDC has not rested on its laurels.  Instead, EDC has continued to work with Santa Barbara’s legislators in an attempt to remove the two exemptions still contained in the Sanctuary legislation–the lease boundary adjustment provision and the “drainage” leasing exemption.  In April of this year, Venoco quitclaimed the Ellwood leases , the only leases in the State that could have taken advantage of the lease boundary adjustment provision, to the State of California, rendering that provision moot. 

One down, one to go!

Carla Frisk was Assemblymember/Senator Jack O’Connell’s District Director from 1993 to 2003.  She  currently serves on the Board of Directors of Get Oil Out!

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