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COURSEY: Coast protections a long time coming

Published: Friday, December 28, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 28, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

When somebody mentions offshore oil drilling, you might think of the Deepwater Horizon and the environmental disaster it caused in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.

But there was a time when offshore drilling was a big issue right here on the North Coast of California.

The Santa Barbara Channel oil spill in 1969 began the discussion, but the push by the oil industry and the federal government to establish more California offshore oil drilling sites continued even after that environmental disaster.

Energy companies had their eyes on drilling sites within view of North Coast beaches. In 1984, when then-Congressman Doug Bosco brought a contingent of his fellow Democrats north to visit his district on a break from the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, one of his buddies ribbed him as the bus crossed the Golden Gate Bridge:

“That view would be even better with a few oil platforms out there,” said Rep. John Breaux of Louisiana.

But it was no joke.

In 1988, with the U.S. Department of the Interior holding hearings on plans to open up the North Coast to offshore drilling, more than 2,000 people streamed into the streets of Fort Bragg to protest the proposal. State politicians streamed into the old Eagle Hall to speak out against President Ronald Reagan's plan to open up more than a million acres off of Mendocino and Humboldt counties to drilling. Then-Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy declared, “This coast is not for sale.” Then-Mendocino County Supervisor Norman de Vall was more blunt, telling federal officials to “get the hell off our coast.”

A year later, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez and its ensuing oil spill in Alaska increased the urgency of protecting California's coast from spills. But other than a series of moratoria that had to be renewed by Congress each year – and which lapsed in 2009 – there was nothing in the way of eventual drilling off of North Coast beaches.

Nothing, that is, until Rep. Lynn Woolsey buttonholed Vice President Joe Biden at a White House Christmas party earlier this month and, to a lesser degree, the president himself. She asked them to support a proposal by her and Sen. Barbara Boxer that would have the president with the stroke of a pen increase environmental protections off the California Coast.

The result, as reported last week by staff writers Guy Kovner and Brett Wilkison, was an announcement that the Obama administration plans to expand two marine sanctuaries off the coast of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, making oil drilling and other energy development off-limits in an additional 2,770 square miles as far north as Point Arena.

It appears to bring a quiet end to what in the late 1980s was the noisiest argument raging on the North Coast. But, unlike later environmental protests that divided some communities, the sentiment against offshore oil drilling was almost universal, bringing communities together in a fight against the federal government. On that day in Fort Bragg, singers Bonnie Raitt and Holly Near joined Lt. Gov. McCarthy and Attorney General John Van de Kamp in speaking out against drilling. Eight hundred people signed up to speak at the hearing.

For those who have since moved to the North Coast, it may come as a surprise that the pristine waters and scenic beaches off of Sonoma and Mendocino counties were ever considered prime sites for oil drilling operations. But despite 25 years of trying – Barbara Boxer in 1987 made an unsuccessful attempt to declare the entire California coast a marine sanctuary when she was a congresswoman from Marin; Woolsey has seen her attempts thwarted in both the Senate and the House – the coast was always only a year away from being leased for drilling.

Woolsey, who is in the last week of her final term after 20 years in Congress, said she ordinarily wouldn't have lobbied the president and vice-president during informal gatherings, “but I'm not going to be around that much longer.”

She was joined at a press conference last week by Boxer and several of her House colleagues from California.

“At long last, we're on the road to giving these waters off the Sonoma County coast the protection they need and deserve,” she said.

It only took a few decades. In a few more, the protections might even extend all the way north into Humboldt County.

“It will happen someday,” Woolsey said.

(Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.)

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