Santa Barbara’s coast could receive permanent protection from new offshore oil drilling, depending on the success of legislation that was introduced in both the Senate and the House yesterday.

Local Congresswoman Lois Capps presented the California Ocean Protection Act in the House of Representatives on Thursday, and Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein introduced similar legislation in the Senate. Jonathan Levenshus, a spokesman for Capps, said the legislation would ban the creation of new oil drilling operations off of California’s coast, but would not affect existing oil platforms. Levenshus said the act would also block a proposed government inventory of oil and gas resources on California’s Outer Continental Shelf – a region of federally owned offshore land extending from California’s southern border with Mexico to the border between California and Washington.

Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center, said approximately 20 oil platforms are currently operating off of California’s Central Coast and there are about 40 undeveloped leases for drilling – 37 of which are leased to oil companies by the federal government. Krop said she does not know how the undeveloped leases would be affected by the proposed legislation. She said she thinks the ban on new drilling is a good idea because it is a more permanent solution than Congress’s yearly vote on the issue.

“There’s a constant threat to open up our area for more leasing and development, and historically Congress has protected us against that through an annual moratorium,” Krop said. “Every year Congress votes through a budget process not to allocate any funds to new oil drilling projects, so it’s a precarious situation, and what [Capps’] bill would do is permanently protect us from future new oil drilling.”

Levenshus said 32 out of the 33 members of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation – a coalition of all the Democratic congressional representatives from California – have already agreed to cosponsor the bill in Congress.

“The threat [of new drilling platforms] exists,” Levenshus said. “Congresswoman Capps is leading the fight to protect California’s beaches, which are important as natural resources and economic resources.”

Boxer said the legislation addresses an issue that Californians have been concerned about for decades.

“Many years ago, Californians decided that the potential benefits of additional offshore oil and gas development were not worth the risk of destroying our priceless coastal treasures,” Boxer said in a press release. “But despite years of bipartisan support for the moratoria on new offshore drilling, recent efforts are threatening our coasts. This bill will finally provide the permanent protection against future drilling that Californians have demanded for a generation.” The legislation also includes a provision to prohibit an inventory of oil and gas resources on California’s Outer Continental Shelf, Levenshus said, because the inventory would be conducted with seismic guns that could harm marine life. According to a press release from Capps’ office, the 2005 Energy Bill included provisions for the inventory, which would measure the exact amounts of oil and gas resources in the Outer Continental Shelf.

Levenshus said Capps believes the California Ocean Protection Act is important because it will help local and state authorities fight oil companies that want to pursue new drilling off California’s coast.

“The key point there is that the oil companies continue to push for new drilling, and Congresswoman Capps believes we need to be focusing more on new alternatives like solar energy and wind energy and have better fuel efficiency standards,” Levenshus said. “That’s a better way [to reduce dependence on fossil fuels] than what Bush is trying to do – to drill our way to energy independence.” The Environmental Defense Center plans to help convince other local environmental groups to back the bill, Krop said.

“We’re very supportive,” Krop said. “We think it’s a really important step, especially given the current administration’s push to develop offshore land in California. So, we think it’s really important that Congress step in to protect our coast. … We are letting other environmental groups know that this is out there and we support it.”