By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Republican move to expedite offshore oil drilling in response to $4-a-gallon gasoline includes a bill, scheduled for a House vote this week, that could bring oil wells to the Sonoma and Mendocino coast.
“They have the votes to do it,” said Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, an anti-drilling advocate with Defenders of Wildlife.
The first of three drilling-related bills sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., House Natural Resources chairman, passed last week, 266-149, with 33 Democrats in support and only two Republicans opposed.
That bill, related to oil lease sales off Virginia and in the Gulf of Mexico, is intended to reverse the Obama administration’s hold on oil leases imposed after the Gulf oil spill.
But another measure, HR 1231, requires the Interior Department to offer leases in every area, including California, with significant oil deposits three miles off the coast.
The measure, “Reversing President Obama’s Offshore Moratorium Act,” is intended to double offshore oil production by 2027. It is scheduled for House action Wednesday.
“This is the oil industry’s dream come true,” said Charter, a veteran of the 30-year battle over North Coast oil development.
The last time gasoline hit $4 a gallon was during the 2008 presidential campaign, when an offshore oil moratorium lapsed and Republicans pushed to “drill now.”
None of the three bills is likely to win approval in the Senate, where Democratic leaders are intent on ending tax breaks for profitable oil companies, the Associated Press reported.
But Charter said the Republican goal is to inject oil drilling into next year’s election campaign.
President Barack Obama, speaking to auto plant workers in Indiana on Friday, acknowledged that gas prices “have been eating away at your paychecks and that is a headwind that we’ve got to confront.”
Crude oil prices fell 15 percent last week, the steepest decline in 2½ years, and gasoline prices at the pump ended a 44-day upward streak, retreating to $3.98 nationally.
Pump prices averaged $4.27 for a gallon of regular gas in Santa Rosa on Saturday, a slight drop from Friday’s $4.28 but still $1.11 higher than a year ago.
North Coast Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, both said they will vote against Hastings’ bills.
Woolsey said she was “vehemently opposed to any drilling” and will pursue her effort to win permanent protection for the Sonoma Coast by doubling the size of two national marine sanctuaries.
Thompson and Woolsey co-sponsored a measure last year to ban oil and natural gas drilling on the West Coast.
The oil industry, given the opportunity, would pursue oil deposits three miles offshore from Point Arena in Mendocino County and Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, Charter said.
The North Coast is part of a section of California coast that holds an estimated 2.3 billion barrels of oil, about 2.4 percent of the nation’s total untapped oil.
Developing California’s offshore oil deposits will generate jobs, government revenues and reduce the state’s dependence on imported oil, oil industry officials say.
The Energy Department has said it will take seven to 10 years for any newly opened drilling area to produce oil, and that its impact on oil prices would be insignificant.
This story includes information from the Associated Press.