Ruling upheld blocking California offshore oil drilling

SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling halting oil and natural gas exploration off the central California coast, saying the area can't be drilled or explored until the California Coastal Commission approves the plan.

The decision Monday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocks any attempt to build the first new oil platforms off California's coast since 1994. No drilling to explore for oil deposits has been conducted since 1989. The proposed developments were off the coastline of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Oil exploration off California's coast has been an explosive issue since 1969, when a massive oil spill soiled the Santa Barbara and Ventura county coast. Offshore rigs account for roughly 20 percent of the state's petroleum production.

At issue is an amount of oil that could be large enough to run California's refineries for two years and fuel five months worth of the state's natural gas demands. Those estimates are about one-fifth the amount of energy within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Bush administration wants to drill.

California sued to block the exploration days after President Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt extended petroleum companies' offshore leases for 10 years in 1999 as they were set to expire.

The lawsuit contended that Babbitt's decision was subject to review by the state under a federal law giving California authority to determine whether offshore drilling in federal waters is consistent with the state's coastal protection plans.

Under the Coastal Zone Management Act, amended in 1990, Congress gave states a say in any activity affecting coastal communities, the appeals court said.

The San Francisco-based appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who last year ruled that the federal government illegally extended the oil companies' 10-year leases. The extensions are called "suspensions" in legal jargon.

The appeals court agreed with Wilken, who said the government "must provide the state of California with a determination that its grant of the lease suspensions at issue here is consistent with California's coastal management program."

Wilken ordered all leases terminated until the federal Minerals Management Service complies with her order, a decision upheld by the appeals court.

Oil companies have paid $1.25 billion for the 40 leases, each covering about a nine square-mile expanse of ocean. The leases were issued between 1968 and 1984. Four of them expired in 1999.

The case is California v. Norton, 01-16637.


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