Eye on Washington November 2021

Dan Sealy Legislative Analyst

A Vivid Reminder: “Where you drill you spill”

As Americans watched the horrors of the oil spill along the coast of Southern California, it was impossible not to look back at the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. That spill energized conservationists, leading to the first Earth Day and new conservation laws.  Now, Congressman Jared Huffman is reminding Americans, “Where you drill you spill, and once again the inevitable has happened.” This 144,000 gallon oil spill has closed down beaches, created air that is nauseating and dangerous to breath, and will affect the wildlife and biological food chain for the longer term. Economic impacts, too, from fishing and boating to small business owners and surfers, have already been felt. The US Coast Guard has posited that the pipeline rupture could have been leaking for months without detection until the recent massive flow.  About five miles of shore are closed to the public and the plumes have spread out into open ocean waters and through the water column. Fortunately, we can do something  right now to prevent more of this environmental damage. In response to President Trump’s order to open most of the coast to oil and gas drilling, Congressman Huffman responded by introducing legislation to halt all new exploration for oil and gas leases off the outer continental shelf in California and elsewhere. In an interview, his staff pointed out that Huffman’s bill to ban offshore gas and oil exploration is now in the reconciliation “Build Back Better” bill, which has been combined with other similar bills such as Congressman Levin and Congressman Lowenthal’s companion bills for Southern California, and is now in negotiation. Senators Feinstein and Padilla of California, Wyden and Merkley of Oregon, and Cantwell of Washington signed a letter asking that the reconciliation plan “Build Back Better” include S. 58, the “West Coast Ocean Protection Act,” which would prohibit new oil and gas leasing off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.

Biden Administration on a Roll

Birds Gotta Fly and while Congress dithers, the current administration reversed the attack on migratory birds that the previous administration waged, which seemed to treat birds as a bother to unlimited development. They seemed to say: if a project happened to kill or disrupt birds, no problem, that is just an accident (even if avoidable) and you get a pass. This administration published a final rule in September that puts the protections back in place though they left a window for projects to request a permit if the project has the potential for impacts on migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Protection Treaty Act was first adopted in 1918 between Canada and the US in order to protect birds, their nests, feathers and other parts.  The law includes the action of private property owners that endanger birds, however, permits have generally been possible to, for example, relocate the nest of a bird that aggressively defends its nest near a school entryway. As the US Fish and Wildlife Service considers new criteria for permits, some bird conservation groups, while applauding rolling back potential harm from the previous administration rule change, are cautious about changes to the permit system.

Removal of areas, including sacred areas to indigenous people, from national monuments was, perhaps, one of the most troubling actions by the last administration. In October the current administration restored the boundaries of National Monuments set aside by previous Presidents’ authority under the Antiquities Act. President Biden restored lost areas of the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument, both in Utah, as well as a marine sanctuary off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the action showed the President is committed to “conserving our public lands and respecting the voices of Indigenous Peoples.”