After a federal court decision this week, coastal California is back in control of its western horizon.
The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled on Monday to allow the California Coastal Commission (CCC) the chance to review and possibly cancel the state’s 36 coastal oil leases. This decision grants California a voice in oil-related matters that environmentalists said was silenced when the federal government bypassed two laws designed to prohibit environmental abuses.
On Monday, Environmental Defense Center (EDC) Chief Counsel Linda Krop applauded the decision, saying she was glad the court sided in favor of the law.
“We were cautiously optimistic that the court would side with coastal protection and the citizens of California,” Krop said. “The law is clear: the state has the right to weigh in on actions that affect California’s coast.”
The decision follows a series of legal battles between the state of California and the federal government regarding the leases. Environmentalists like Teresa Olle, the program development director at CalPIRG, claim that the federal Minerals Management Service approved the leases in November of 1999 without complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA). NEPA requires a study of the environmental impacts of a certain action and possible alternatives; CZMA allows a state to have input on federally initiated coastal activity.
“Basically, they ignored it,” Olle said. “It’s a two-step process, and they didn’t do either of them.”
The state sued the federal government in late 2000. Environmental groups like CalPIRG, the Sierra Club, Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper and Get Oil Out! intervened on behalf of the state, meaning that a federal court legally recognized their status as a litigant in the matter. Likewise, oil companies intervened on behalf of the federal government. When Oakland District Judge Claudia Wilkins ruled in June 2001 that the federal government had violated NEPA, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton announced the federal government would appeal. Monday’s decision merely reaffirmed Wilkins’ earlier ruling.
The federal government now has 90 days to decide whether to pursue an appeal with the Supreme Court. A representative from the Dept. of the Interior would not comment on whether it would pursue such an appeal.
Jenna Garmon, another EDC community affairs director, said she hopes the federal government does not pursue such an action. The state government’s next action will be a public hearing. Garmon said the hearing will be the first chance for California residents to voice their opinions in the matter.
“It’s one of the reasons we pushed for a state review,” Garmon said.
The litigation effectively blocked any development of the 36 leases. Olle said she hoped the areas are never developed.
“If development can be blocked, that’s 324 square miles of ocean that will stay oil-free,” she said.
Olle also said she thought the victory was just one in a series of conflicts between environmentalists and oil companies. Even if the CCC reviews the leases and finds they are not consistent with its environmental plan, the Dept. of Commerce can still override the state’s conclusion if encouraging oil development is in the paramount interest of the nation.
“The war is not over yet,” Olle said. “This is just one small battle.”
CCC Commissioner] Pedro Nava agreed, but said he doubted the Dept. of Commerce would make such a decision.
“It’s an important victory, but it would be political suicide for a politician to insist on further oil drilling,” he said. “Any proposed extension of any leases would be exposed to an extensive environmental review.”
Representatives from the five oil companies affected by the impending review – including Aera Energy LLC, Conoco Inc., Nuevo Energy Co., Poseidon Petroleum LLC and the Samedan Oil Corporation Corp. – could not be reached for comment.