Weeks after roughly 25,000 gallons of crude oil flooded the Southern California coast, members of Congress are still wringing their hands.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., has called for an investigation. So has Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif., who also called for a state of emergency and visited some of the hardest-hit areas in her district.

What You Need To Know

  • President Joe Biden is attempting to follow through on a campaign promise to cut future federal leases for offshore drilling

  • While Democrats are largely united, some Republicans prefer to focus on improving rules and regulations around offshore drilling instead

  • Democrats are optimistic that some offshore oil drilling provisions, focused on California and Alaskan coastal waters, could survive

  • The California oil spill was about 25,000 gallons or about one-fifth of what officials first feared

The long-simmering issue was spotlighted in the 2020 presidential campaign when candidate Joe Biden promised to end future federal offshore oil leases. Now, as president, Biden is on the precipice of delivering a partial victory. 

Whether he’ll be turned back from the verge of a win depends on whether lawmakers can agree, what gatekeepers like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-Va., demand, and whether Republicans can force enough cuts to necessitate the removal of the offshore oil drilling issue.

Over the years, different bills have surfaced, some coming from Lowenthal’s office, aiming to take a piece out of the future pile of leases oil companies can compete over. Various bills have been scuttled in a politically rocky climate as bipartisan discussion and cooperation is sometimes hard to come by.

Republicans have been divided, with some coastal members of the party, specifically Florida, worried about a replay of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. In 2020, President Donald Trump made steps to open 19 million acres of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. A Pew survey at the time showed that 79% of Americans preferred to focus on developing alternative energy solutions. Marine drilling was a different issue. Around the same time, he expanded offshore oil drilling protections in Alaska.

Still, Biden’s promise to further scale back future marine drilling is not a sure thing. The reconciliation bill — which could cost taxpayers in the neighborhood of $3 trillion — remains a closely fought battle and the safety to cutbacks in future leases is uncertain.

Oil drilling in California has long been a partisan issue, even since the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger who, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill off the Gulf of Mexico, chose to place a moratorium on oil drilling in waters under his control.

Schwarzenegger took office after Gray Davis, a Democrat, was jettisoned in a 2003 recall election and arrived in Sacramento at odds with both Sen. John McCain and then-President George W. Bush. Offshore oil drilling remained a priority, and Schwarzenegger wanted to rethink the practice. 

He had mentioned his vision for fewer leases to a room full of Republicans, according to his chief of energy policy, Terry Tamminen.

“He told them they had to get with the times then was booed off the stage,” said Tamminen.

After more than 210 million gallons of oil spread across the gulf, Schwarzenneger pulled the trigger on a moratorium in California waters. It was an unpopular decision in the party, Tamminen explained.

“At least there was a nodding acceptance where Trump went in the other direction and wanted more coal and more drilling,” he said.

Tamminen now heads nonprofit 7th Generation Advisors that looks for solutions that will help bring the world to a sustainable model. One of his many recent projects has been to work with Brazilian governors in their effort to stop arson in the rainforest, while the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, shows little interest in the problem.

Tamminen even advised Barack Obama on energy policy. When Obama asked him if he was against all offshore drilling, Tamminen had to admit he wasn’t.

“I think as long as we use oil we should be taking as much responsibility for it as possible,” said Tamminen.

The practice has been appealing to certain nations and states. It can boost jobs and increase energy independence. But the process is costly and can lead to disasters like the Deepwater Horizon, which began with an explosion that killed 11 oil rig workers and released hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the water. Even transporting the oil has led to spills, like the Exxon Valdez crash of 1989 off the coast of Alaska.

Politicians of both parties have wanted to curtail drilling, but it remains a lucrative business backed by corporate superpowers like British Petroleum and Exxon Mobile.

The latest spill has hurt local southern California economies in Dana Point, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. While the spill hasn’t been on the scale of other mishaps, it has shut down fishing in certain areas, diminishing yield during the area’s lobster fishing season.

House members of California coastal districts have been divided. While Orange County had gone blue in 2018, Steel and Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., have disrupted Democrats’ power. Both have been reluctant to speak out about the future of offshore drilling, instead focusing on the immediate aftermath of the spill and the measures that can be taken now.

Democrats, seeing an opportunity, have offered full-throated condemnations of the practice and have taken the opportunity to strafe Kim and Steel with repeated attacks. 

While Republicans have been grappling behind closed doors on the force of the response they want to offer, progressive Democrats have long pushed for greener policies. Growing concerns over climate change have coalesced into ambitious, expensive proposals like the Green New Deal, which became an election topic.

Lowenthal began his political career in 1990 as a Long Beach City Council member. He still represents that city, only now as a member of Congress and the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee. While not firmly within the progressive caucus, he has long championed environmental issues. He ran on those issues back when he walked the pavement from send to tenth street, knocking on doors.  

“That’s when I began my introductory work learning about particulates,” Lowenthal said. “In those days, the port’s motto was grow baby grow to compete with the port of Los Angeles.”

Since those days worked on a range of environmental legislation and has crossed the aisle to try to find common ground with Republicans. Lowenthal, like many of his colleagues, doesn’t think a sudden stop of drilling is possible or desirable, instead opting for a long-term phase-out of the practice. Included in that vision is greater accountability for the companies that operate oil rigs.

Lowenthal foresees a future where oil company executives are brought before Congress in formal hearings with investigations of their drilling practices collected in a report similar to the 9/11 Commission Report.

Steel avoided talk of future oil leases and has been focused on protecting the coast now. Her office said she wouldn’t vote for the reconciliation bill. Her district covers much of the affected area and has been thoroughly criticized by Democrats since the spill happened.

Steel has been especially vocal in advocating for her district, calling for an investigation and for emergency help. Her concerns center around shipping and a backlog of barges forced to take anchor offshore while they wait to be unloaded. Those anchors can pose a threat to oil drilling infrastructure. Lowenthal offered a similar suggestion in a release circulated by his office.

Steel’s mind hasn’t been on future oil leases, insisting there are more immediate solutions available. While Democrats have accounted for what it would cost to help oil workers transition to new jobs, she said they hadn’t considered everything.

“They look at the cost side and the expense side but they never look at the revenue side,” she said.