In California, a Rallying Cry Against Offshore Oil

As Californians protest the Trump administration’s intent to expand drilling off the Pacific coast, some city and state officials consider new legislation to block it.
A Hands Across the Sand protest in Laguna Beach, CA, in response to Trump's proposal to expand offshore oil and gas drilling

Steve Bruckmann/Shutterstock

Dani Garcia had planned to man the NRDC table set up near the beach at a rally against offshore oil drilling on a cloudless day in Laguna Beach. But as people paraded around her waving handmade signs that read “Save our Oceans” and “There is no planet B,” with some protesters even dressed up as oil spill cleanup workers, she couldn’t stand still. She hugged local business owners, sang in solidarity with surfers, then joined hands with the hundreds of protesters—kids included—who stood together in the sand and stretched across the beach they were there to protect. “It felt incredible to be surrounded by people who were willing to show up and fight to protect our oceans,” says Garcia, an NRDC program assistant. “It gave me hope.”

The demonstration in Laguna Beach was only the latest instance of the city’s vociferous opposition to offshore drilling. Last November, the city council unanimously voted to pass a resolution opposing new fossil fuel drilling off the coast and fracking in existing offshore wells. Meanwhile, many other California communities also hosted beachside protests in the wake of the Trump administration’s January announcement that it would move to open the entire Pacific coast to new federal offshore oil and gas leasing. Thousands participated in the day of action on February 3 up and down the coastline, on the Santa Monica Pier, in San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and Santa Cruz. Later that week, Californians marched from the state capitol in Sacramento to a so-called public hearing by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on its proposal.

Support for keeping oil rigs off the Pacific coast resonates far and wide in the Golden State, with 69 percent of Californians opposing the expansion of offshore drilling. “I'm really pleased it’s not a partisan issue for California,” says Sarah Sikich, vice president of Heal the Bay, who attended one of the February protests on the Santa Monica Pier. The potential for an oil spill poses a major threat to California’s vibrant economy, she notes. “I’ve always seen offshore drilling—not just with the recent Trump administration proposal—as something that crosses party lines, crosses divisions of all different ages,” she says. “It’s one of those galvanizing issues for a lot of different communities.”

Tell Congress to stop Trump's dirty, dangerous offshore drilling plan

California’s coastal economy funnels $2.1 trillion into the state’s GDP and employs 15.8 million people, according to a 2016 report by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Californians have seen that investments in marine protection have not only preserved the coast, but marine conservation has provided jobs and consistent economic growth in coastal areas,” says Sandy Aylesworth, an NRDC oceans advocate. “Further, California’s renewable energy economy is booming. The state’s CO2 emissions have dropped, all while growing the clean energy sector.”

Of course, not all Californians agree. Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who represents the 48th District, stretching along the coast from Seal Beach to Laguna Beach, supports lifting the ban on expanding drilling offshore. He has also, in the past, called global warming “a total fraud.” 

Santa Barbara oil spill cleanup, February 1969

Wally Fong/AP

In spite of the views of some members of Congress, Californians have seen over and over again that oil and water don’t mix. Many oil and gas tragedies have occurred along the state’s coast—most infamously, the 1969 blowout in the waters off Santa Barbara, which, half a century later, ranks as the third-largest in our nation’s history. That spill killed thousands of birds, fish, and marine mammals and devastated their habitats and the local beaches. It also helped spur the modern environmental movement, as in its wake came new federal laws regulating air and water pollution and protecting sensitive coastal areas. More recently, a corroded pipeline dumped more than 3,400 barrels of oil near Refugio State Beach, and oil flowed as far south as Orange County.

Because of this history of accidents, Californians like Dina Gilio-Whitaker have little confidence in the safety of offshore drilling practices. “If they do more offshore oil drilling, it's inevitable that there's going to be some spill, some accident . . . these things always break,” says this resident of San Clemente, who attended the protest in Laguna Beach. Gilio-Whitaker is policy director at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and a professor of American Indian studies at California State University San Marcos. She’s also an avid surfer. She estimates that 25 million people in the world surf and notes that the importance of surfing to the Southern California way of life can’t be overstated. She also points out that tribal nations have lost numerous sacred sites in Southern California due to forces of development and pollution, such as offshore drilling.

In response to the Trump administration’s threats to the nation’s coasts, NRDC, Heal the Bay, and more than 80 other organizations have voiced support for two pieces of state legislation, Assembly Bill 1775 and Senate Bill 834, that will prohibit the California State Lands Commission from approving new leases or lease renewals for infrastructure that would lead to more oil or gas extraction from federal waters. What’s more, dozens of California communities have passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling similar to the one adopted in Laguna Beach, and the Protect the Pacific coalition (of which NRDC is a member) continues to push for more.

Attorney Damon Nagami, who directs NRDC’s Southern California Ecosystems Project, recently sat on an offshore drilling panel hosted by the city of Malibu and spoke to a packed crowd about how people can get involved, contact their representatives, and support organizations fighting to protect our oceans. “I just want you to know, yes, there is a process for offshore drilling proposals to go through, but we’re not waiting,” he said. “We’ve already sued.” NRDC and several partner organizations filed a lawsuit shortly after Trump signed his executive order last April aiming to open the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, and potentially other areas, to oil and gas leasing. That case is moving forward.

Panelists at the Malibu Township Council's meeting about offshore drilling (from left): Nancy Hastings, Oceana; Malibu Township councilmember; Damon Nagami, NRDC; Chad Nelson, Surfrider CEO; two Malibu residents; Rep. Ted Lieu; Council member Lou La Monte

Courtesy Damon Nagami

Nagami says he was heartened to see so many people turn out for the panel. “Their outrage and outpouring against this Trump administration plan was very inspiring to me,” he says. “I saw faces of folks from all different walks of life come out to say they oppose offshore drilling and Trump’s objective. They’re so glad to know groups like NRDC and our great elected local representatives are fighting back against this terrible plan.”

Dani Garcia has gathered hope too, especially from the youngest in the crowds. “They are the future of this movement, and their involvement means everything. To see them all fired up and ready to protect what they love is incredibly heartwarming.”

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