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If Trump Wants to Drill for Oil in San Diego Waters, He'll Have to Get Through His Navy

The Trump administration has proposed opening California’s coast to oil drilling. An oil basin near Oceanside could be particularly valuable, but the military says drilling there would disrupt its operations.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Trump administration’s attempt to allow oil drilling off the San Diego coast is running into an old obstacle: the Department of Defense.

California politicians and environmentalists have long worried about oil spills — because they’ve seen them before. A 1969 spill in Santa Barbara blackened dozens of miles of coastline, killed thousands of birds and devastated local tourism and fishing.

But the armed forces have worries of their own. Offshore drilling could flummox training and operations and, in turn, endanger national security.

These worries lay dormant for decades after a series of congressional and presidential actions prevented new drilling platforms off the California coast. Now they’re back. The Department of Interior is considering allowing drilling across 248 million acres of the Pacific Ocean.

Oil companies may be particularly drawn to a basin of oil near Oceanside. It’s thought to hold over a billion barrels of oil.

It’s also right near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, a site uniquely suited to prepare troops for amphibious warfare.

Map of proposed offshore drilling area overlaid on Navy training and testing areas

The Navy conducts multiple tests in the areas that could otherwise be leased to oil companies. The Navy tests weapons and operates planes, ships and submarines in those areas.

There are two concerns. First, that oil exploration and drilling could force the military to change how, when and where it trains. Second, that a training exercise, particularly one using live fire, could go awry and cause an oil spill.

“To the extent that offshore drilling interferes with the ability of the U.S. armed forces to train, to be combat ready for deployment, to be combat ready for operations, then offshore drilling is a threat to national security,” said Joseph Bouchard, a retired Navy captain who speaks out against offshore drilling. He lives in Virginia but had sea time in the Pacific.

Active duty military officials are prevented from lobbying against offshore drilling, but they can answer questions about their concerns, if asked. When asked, they urge caution.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis, San Diego city councilmembers Lorie Zapf and David Alvarez said they’ve heard from “several high ranking military commanders” about offshore drilling. The commanders said the drilling could negatively affect training, according to the letter.

Zapf, a Republican, and Alvarez, a Democrat, are hardly the first California politicians to reach across party lines to oppose offshore drilling.

In remarks during a 1983 congressional hearing, former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, was blunt about the danger offshore drilling might pose.

“American sailors already face many risks in serving their country,” he said. “I can see no reason to further jeopardize their lives by adding the inherent dangers in frequent training exercises and maneuvers near oil rigs.” (His son, current Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., did not respond to a request for comment.)

The elder Hunter was part of a group of California Republicans and Democrats that successfully halted a drilling push from the Reagan administration.

Those old anti-drilling factions included officials from Democrat Leon Panetta, a future defense secretary who was then a young congressman from Northern California, to San Diego Republican Bill Lowery, who was not otherwise known as an environmentalist.

Ben Haddad, Lowery’s former chief of staff, said the Navy helped push back against offshore drilling, even though it couldn’t expressly lobby against it.

“The Navy just didn’t want to have any obstacles in their way,” Haddad said.

The Navy has repeatedly talked about finding a way to share space on the seas, suggesting its opposition is not total.

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense said it was going over the areas where drilling is proposed. It plans to detail where it would like restrictions on drilling and where it would like oil companies to agree to act differently if they want to drill. Its concerns cover bases all around the country, including off the Virginia coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

In statements in the past two weeks, spokeswomen for the Marines and Navy noted concern, though suggested there might be a way to work things out.

The Navy said it wants to “find compatible solutions, where possible, that support the development of domestic energy resources in concert with enabling military operations, testing, and training.” The Marine Corps said it agreed with the Navy.

Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, who has long opposed offshore drilling, recalled a meeting in the 1980s where someone representing Camp Pendleton expressed specific concerns about drilling there.

“What they do there is apparently totally unique to that site, and if they had oil facilities in the way, they couldn’t do it all,” Charter said.

The Department of the Interior estimates that there are about a billion barrels of “technically recoverable” oil in the Oceanside-Capistrano basin, which is close to coastal San Diego County and Orange County. Companies could make money off much of that oil now, given current oil prices.

There are other basins further out, like one far off San Diego’s coast. Not only is there estimated to be less oil there, but it isn’t considered profitable to drill for it in the foreseeable future.

Though companies have not signed any new deals to drill off the coast since the Santa Barbara spill, there are still 27 offshore platforms. None of those are along the San Diego coast.

Four platforms are in state waters, which extend three nautical miles offshore. The other 23 platforms are in federal waters, which extend another 200 nautical miles out.

Several platforms in federal waters are operated by one company you’ve probably heard of, ExxonMobil. Most of the rest are operated by a few companies you probably haven’t — Beta Operating, DCOR, Pacific Operators Offshore, Venoco, Freeport McMoRan Oil & Gas.

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