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How a Fight Against Offshore Oil Drilling Resulted in the Largest National Marine Sanctuary in the United States

Beginning in 1986, the City of Santa Cruz rose to the forefront of growing citizen opposition to offshore oil drilling in California. A coalition of elected officials, including city councilmembers, John Laird and Mardi Wormhoudt, county supervisor and land use lawyer, Gary Patton, and chair of Save our Shores, Kim Tschantz, developed an innovative oppositional strategy. The federal govern­ment holds jurisdiction over offshore leasing areas located between three and two hundred miles off the coast of California. Oil drilling is constitutionally protected as a federal activity. In other words, local communities have no legal standing to oppose oil drilling off their coasts. However, oil drilling does necessitate the construction of a supporting onshore infrastructure, including dewatering plants, heli­copter pads, and pipelines, and these facilities must be approved by local zoning changes. This coalition introduced Measure A, a ballot measure that mandated that any of these zoning changes would have to be approved by a vote of the people of the City of Santa Cruz. The measure passed with 82 percent of the vote. Perhaps most importantly, it also authorized the Santa Cruz City Council to provide funds to lead a fight against offshore oil in Central and Northern California.

As a result of Measure A, Santa Cruz activist and UCSC alum Dan Haifley was hired (through Save Our Shores) to coordinate what became known as the Oil Information Program. In the late 1980s, Haifley traveled in his Pinto throughout Coastal California communities showing an educational slideshow he developed entitled Is It Worth the Risk? and consulting via telephone and in person with local government officials and activists interested in passing land use ordinances modeled on the ballot measure that passed in Santa Cruz. Over twenty of such ordinances passed throughout California.

Then the oil industry fought back. The Western Oil and Gas Association (later named the Western States Oil and Gas Association) sued thirteen of the communities involved. The communities pooled their resources and hired attorney Roger Beers in San Francisco, who successfully won the case for local governments. This sent a strong political message to Washington, D.C. regard­ing citizen opposition to offshore oil drilling in California, a political message which played an essential role in the next chap­ter of the battle against offshore oil drilling in California, which was the establishment of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBMNS). Haifley was to be integrally involved in this battle as well.

In 1972, Congress had passed the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act which, among other things, established the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Title III of the law was later renamed the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. Efforts to cre­ate a marine sanctuary in the Monterey Bay region date back to 1975, when the California Coastal Zone Conservation Commission recommended a sanctuary for the area, but after many years that proposal was eventually rejected by the Reagan administration. This proposal was reintroduced by Congressman Leon Panetta in 1988 and eventually evolved into the 1992 federal designation of a much larger sanctuary, which stretches 276 miles from Cambria in the south to Marin County in the north.

According to the MBMNS website, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s resources include “. . . our nation’s larg­est kelp forest, one of North America’s largest underwater canyons and the closest-to-shore deep ocean environment in the continental United States. It is home to one of the most diverse marine eco­systems in the world, including 33 species of marine mammals, 94 species of seabirds, 345 species of fishes, and numerous invertebrates and plants. It is considered by many as the “Serengeti of the Sea.”

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