Back when pols still wore fedoras, oil companies wanting in on state lands off the coast of California had no need to bother with the mess of legal, political, and regulatory barriers confronting them today.
All they had to do was head for Sacramento to “go see Rosie.”
More formally known to California historians as Joe Rosenthal, Rosie was the chief political consultant and fixer for the late governor Frank Merriam, whose administration was consumed by a scandal involving state oil drilling leases in 1938. As recounted in Crude Politics, a history of California oil policy (tinyurl.com/lmc2gp), the governor’s “go see Rosie” policy led to a scandal that transformed much of the structure of state government. One big change was that the governor lost power over the awarding of lucrative energy leases, in favor of a newly created State Lands Commission.
The historic vignette came to mind this week as the Legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the Capitol to face anew the state’s chronic budget deficit, a seemingly intractable issue that once again will push to center stage the fight over oil drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara.
The governor is expected to resume his push to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue, in exchange for granting the Houston-based PXP energy company a lease to drill in state waters off the coast near Lompoc. His latest effort will mark the third major battle within a year over the much-chronicled Tranquillon Ridge/PXP project. On a 2-1 vote, the aforementioned Lands Commission early last year defeated it, a verdict upheld by the Legislature during an epic budget battle a few months later.
Now, the Terminator, still facing a recession-ravaged state treasury, is back.
The latest conflict is certain to generate a new round of recriminations and internal feuding among environmentalists, who are split as to the merits of the drilling proposal. Led by the Environmental Defense Center, which negotiated an agreement with PXP to end drilling in federal waters off Santa Barbara in exchange for the 14-year state lease, some advocates view the T-Ridge plan as the best bet to begin to phase out offshore drilling permanently. As a matter of political process, they believe the project should be revisited by the Lands Commission, not muscled through the Legislature by the governor. However, their backing for the overall plan infuriates many other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which worked hard to kill the measure in last year’s budget fight.
When hostilities over the matter resume, some Santa Barbara political leaders will play key roles:
• City Councilmember Das Williams, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the 35th Assembly District seat, has supported the PXP plan. He has said he entered the race specifically because of that issue-in order to challenge coastal advocate Susan Jordan-who fiercely opposes the project. The governor’s effort to end-run the Lands Commission complicates the politics of the matter, and it will be significant to see how Williams handles the issue with Jordan in his face.
• Assemblymember Pedro Nava, whose term limit-driven retirement from the 35th District set the stage for the Williams-Jordan contest, successfully led and rallied the legislative opposition that killed the PXP plan last year. Nava, who is married to Jordan, is now running in the Democratic race for Attorney General, and his high-profile anti-drilling stance is a key part of his political pitch.
• State Senator Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) recently was nominated by Schwarzenegger to be lieutenant governor, replacing Democrat John Garamendi. Before winning a special election for Congress, Garamendi as lieutenant governor cast the decisive vote against the T-Ridge plan on the State Lands Commission. Maldonado voted against the project in the Senate last year; as the governor’s man, however, he would come under pressure to switch his position, if he is confirmed as lieutenant governor and if the project comes back before the commission.
“While he demonstrated good judgment one time,” Nava, who gets a vote on Maldonado’s nomination, said of the GOP’s senator’s anti-PXP vote, “we’re going to need to know a lot more about his positions on ocean protection, state lands, and other public trust issues. This is not a simple position.”