Offshore Oil Drilling Foes Seek to Educate (and Track) Rohrabacher, Walters and Issa

A deep water oil rig with flare boom. (Courtesy of NRDC)

Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) and Darrell Issa (R-Vista) are among four members of Congress from the Orange County delegation who have not taken a position on new oil drilling off the California coast, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Well, at least they have not officially, such as in an actual House vote. (More on that below.) The lack of an official position finds the trio among four members of Congress from Southern California that environmental experts, local business and community leaders as well as California Native Nations and indigenous-led organizations have invited to public forums this week to discuss the idea of drill, baby, drill.

Up first is Rohrabacher, whose 48th congressional district overlaps coastal Orange County land that was the stomping grounds for the Tongva/Gabrielino and Acjachemen/Juaneño peoples. The 15-term incumbent is invited to the forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Newport Beach City Hall Community Room, 100 Civic Center Dr., Newport Beach.

The next forum invitee is Representative Steve Knight (R-Santa Clarita), whose north Los Angeles County district was inhabited by the Fernandeño Tataviam people. The Friday night gathering is at the Santa Clarita Activity Center.

The yakking then moves back to the 49th congressional district, which mostly covers northern San Diego County–the home of the Kumeyaay/Diegueño and Payoomkawichum/Luiseño people–but also extends across the Orange County border from San Clemente up to Dana Point. Issa, who is not seeking reelection to that seat in November, has been invited to Saturday’s 11 a.m. forum at Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Dr., Encinitas.

The final forum, which begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, in the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology Meeting Room SBSG 1517, has as its invitee Walters, whose 45th congressional district was populated by the Tongva/Gabrielino and Acjachemen/Juaneño peoples.

Organizers are hoping to educate the members of Congress on “the importance of protecting the Pacific and California’s coastal economy.”

“According to the National Ocean Economics Program, tourism, recreation and fishing along California’s coast generate nearly $20 billion a year and support 400,000 jobs in hotels, restaurants, gas stations, tackle shops, charter boats and other local businesses,” organizers continue. “At stake are valuable fisheries and a way of life for many coastal communities. The events will provide a venue for local community members and experts to discuss how a healthy ocean impacts their lives and how they can work with their elected leaders to protect the California coast.”

These same coastal protectors were alarmed on Jan. 4, when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released the 2019-2024 draft plan to drill for oil and gas in U.S. waters. At the time, Zinke said he was encouraged by an Aug. 16, 2017, letter in support of drilling that was signed by 100 members of Congress, including Walters and Rohrabacher.

Rohrabacher, whose $10,800 contribution from Signal Hill Petroleum this election cycle makes the company among his top donors, said after the Zinke announcement that he supports the Trump administration proposal.

However, when Rohrabacher was confronted about it by a constituent during a Facebook town hall, the 15-term incumbent claimed he never said he supported new drilling, only the lifting of the ban. The Surfin’ Congressman has also said drilling is safer for the ocean than bringing oil into California via tankers because they can leak.

Harley Rouda, the Democrat squaring off against Rohrabacher in November, says he opposes new drilling off the California coast, that he will take no campaign contributions from the oil industry and that he is heavily committed to renewable energy such as wind and solar. However, ThinkProgress.org reported earlier this year that the Laguna Beach businessman was, as of 2017, heavily invested in crude oil.

Issa reacted to Zinke’s announcement by saying he opposed the Trump administration drilling plan. Six days later, he announced he was stepping down from the 49th district seat. Squaring off in November for that vacancy are Democrat Mike Levin, who says he is vehemently against drilling, and Republican Diane Harkey, whose consultant Dave Gilliard has said she opposes new oil leases off California but is OK with them elsewhere. 

But Harkey was a strong ally the oil and gas industry relied on for years when she served in the California Legislature. Meanwhile, during the primary campaign, other Democrats seeking the 49th district seat alleged that Levin was with a company tied to Exxon-Mobil that had pushed phony green technologies. That forced Levin to counter that his role was to champion fuel cells and renewable energy before he co-founded Sustain OC, an Orange County nonprofit that pushes for job creation in the clean-tech sector.

Gilliard also claims that Walters, who has been publicly silent about the Trump administration proposal, opposes new California drilling but is fine with it being done elsewhere. Katie Porter, the Democrat facing off against Walters in November, has strongly condemned new drilling. Upon receiving endorsements from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) Action Fund and the California League of Conservation Voters last Thursday, the 45th district challenger said, “Our community values the environment and deserves a champion for our air, water and beaches, not another vote for big oil.”

As for Walters, LVC Action Fund Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Tiernan Sittenfeld pointed to the incumbent’s initial support for “the Trump administration’s plan to open up Orange County waters to offshore drilling, risking devastating oil spills,” and, at 4 percent, for having one of the lowest lifetime League of Conservation scores in California. California League of Conservation Voters Political Director James Johnson noted that Walters has taken more than $200,000 from oil and gas interests while Porter “refuses to take a dime from oil companies and will fight any efforts to allow offshore oil drilling off the coast of Orange County.”

Gilliard has yet another client–Young Kim, the Republican seeking the 39th congressional district seat from which Representative Ed Royce (R-Brea) is stepping down–who opposes new drilling off California but supports it elsewhere. Royce has not publicly taken a position on new oil leases, but Gil Cisneros, the Democrat seeking to replace the incumbent in November, is opposed to them–and he has won the Sierra Club’s endorsement. During the primary, other Democrats claimed Cisneros invested in oil and gas when the California lottery made him a millionaire.

Jeez, it sure sounds as if there are a lot of politicos who need some edumacating about drilling. Organizers of the upcoming forums say they will try to drill into invitees that offshore oil and gas drilling is opposed by local, state, federal and tribal leaders in California, the Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast and, according to polls, a majority of voters in Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. So does the outgoing governor, the likely incoming governor, the incumbent U.S. senators and the majority of the state Legislature and congressional delegation. 

The forums come on the heels of the NRDC launching “Stop Trump’s Offshore Drilling Assault”–a new digital tool you can get by clicking here–to track how governors and members of Congress stand on drilling.

The NRDC ranked the strength of opposition to (or support for) drilling based on congressional votes on offshore drilling amendments this year, co-sponsoring, sponsoring or signing on to a relevant bill in the 115th Congress and signing on to a letter or submitting an official comment to the Bureau of Energy Management in 2018. 

Based on all of that, the NRDC concludes that Representative Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who used to represent parts of Orange County but whose 42nd congressional district is entirely in Riverside County now, supports offshore drilling. 

Issa, Walters, Rohrabacher and Royce are among 13 members from California who have not taken a position on drilling, according to the NRDC tool, which finds Representative Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), whose 46th district is entirely in Orange County, and representatives Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), whose 38th and 47th districts respectively cover parts of OC, oppose new drilling.

Correa, Sanchez and Lowenthal were among the members of Congress that signed a Jan. 18 letter to Zinke imploring the Interior secretary to maintain the ban on new drilling leases off the California coast.

Tracking how members of Congress stand on the issue is critical, according to Franz Matzner, the NRDC’s director of Federal Affairs.

“Californians need little reminder of why drilling is such a bad idea,” Matzner says. “They feel the effects of climate change daily, with huge swaths of forestland on fire and recurring drought. Producing dirty energy offshore would lock in decades of carbon pollution and put the state’s coastline and communities at grave risk of spills and contamination. Sixty-seven percent of Californians do not want new offshore drilling.

“With this tool, you can look up elected officials in the California delegation and see where they stand on this issue. Protecting the state’s $22.3 billion ocean tourism and recreation economy is going to require unyielding, united opposition to Trump’s radical oil and gas drilling plan.”

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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