The shameful spectacle of California’s latest budget brawl produced legions of losers last week-and a very short list of political winners that was topped by Assemblymember Pedro Nava.
In a nationally watched legislative battle, the Santa Barbara Democrat led the fight to defeat Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid to resurrect the controversial Tranquillon Ridge oil drilling project, off the coast from Lompoc. When the deal went down, he had scored a political triumph that boosted his fledgling primary campaign for Attorney General by raising his visibility and stature in a crowded statewide race filled with little-known contenders.
“This vote was a very forceful expression of our opposition to the governor’s insidious proposal,” Nava said in an interview. “But I firmly believe we aren’t through yet-this ain’t over.”
The battle of Tranquillon Ridge was one scene in a sprawling political drama that played out over efforts to fill a $27-billion hole in the budget, the third time in 10 months that Capitol denizens moved to stem the tide of recessionary red ink. Amid billions in spending cuts, Schwarzenegger coveted the project for its revenue: nearly $2 billion during the life of a state drilling lease, and $100 million in the first year.
The senate passed his plan by one vote, but up against Nava, he was battered 43-28 in the Assembly, where a ginned-up coalition, including more than 50 environmental groups and the state Democratic Party, pressed legislators to keep intact California’s 40-year anticoastal- drilling policy.
“The plan,” Nava thundered after the vote, “would have unraveled critical environmental protections, put the coast at risk, and set a terrible precedent while the federal government is considering its five-year drilling plan for the outer continental shelf.”
State and national media framed the vote as a simple referendum on offshore drilling, but for Santa Barbarans, the swirl of politics and policy was filled with nuance and complexity.
“It was really, really, really frustrating,” Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), said of the fight. “There were so many people spreading misinformation, from Pedro on down.”
Last week’s battle began with a 2008 legal agreement that EDC negotiated with PXP oil company. Backed by many regional officials and environmentalists, the deal offered the company a lease to slant drill into state waters from Platform Irene, from where it’s already extracting oil in federal waters. In exchange, PXP agreed to end all drilling off Irene and three other platforms in 14 years, and to a host of other pro-environment concessions. However, in January the State Lands Commission rejected the deal, questioning whether the end dates for drilling were enforceable.
Then, in May, Schwarzenegger jumpstarted the plan, using the budget crisis to push legislation to resurrect the deal and hand control of the lease to his state Department of Finance. An attempt to end-run the Lands Commission, the power play unified environmentalists, as even those who backed the substance of the proposal -including the EDC-rejected Arnold’s bid to usurp the process.
That backstory-including the environmental benefits that EDC and others saw in the original agreement-was buried in the Sturm und Drang of the Sacramento smackdown. Krop told me it was “incredibly sad to us” that the agreement’s original aims and benefits were clouded. Shortly before the decisive vote, EDC circulated a press release in a futile effort to clarify the issues and separate the merits of the PXP plan from Arnold’s hijack of the process.
Meanwhile, another subplot played out in the Democratic primary race for the 35th Assembly District seat, which Nava is vacating because of term limits. Among those fighting to beat Schwarzenegger’s bill was Susan Jordan, a top contender for the seat and a coastal advocate who fiercely opposed EDC’s agreement from the start-and who happens to be married to Nava. Jordan’s chief Democratic rival is S.B. City Councilmember Das Williams, who backed the original PXP agreement and cited Jordan’s opposition to it in his decision to enter the race.
Williams rejected the governor’s attempted bypass of the State Lands Commission while still supporting the deal’s substance. Had Arnold prevailed, Williams would have been in an awkward stance, with Jordan positioned to argue that his half-a-loaf opposition gave sustenance to a Republican who rammed through California’s first offshore lease in four decades.
With the deal dormant for now, that’s a murkier argument to make, although it seems likely the issue will resurface. PXP issued a statement this week saying it “intends to continue pushing for the project based on its merits to the State of California.”
Says Nava: “Round Two is coming up.”