A visitor at Salt Point State Park in California in the expansion area for Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. (Matt McIntosh/NOAA)
The Trump Administration is reviewing whether to shrink national marine sanctuaries and monuments under a recently-released plan that could expand offshore oil and gas drilling. The areas that could lose protection span from Central California to the South Pacific to New England, totalling about 425 million acres. Those acres include four national marine sanctuaries off the California coast: Monterey Bay, Cordell Bank, the Greater Farallones and the Channel Islands. A 30-day comment period on the proposal runs through July 26.
KQED's Brian Watt spoke with Paul Rogers, the managing editor of KQED's science unit and environment writer at the Mercury News, about the government's proposal and what it could mean for California.
Watt: The president is considering reversing any marine sanctuary protections that happened after 2007. What were those protections?
Rogers: Marine sanctuaries are kind of like underwater national parks, and essentially you're allowed to fish in most of them but you can't drill for oil, you can't drill for gas, you can't do underwater mining. No president has ever shrunk or killed a sanctuary in the 45 years that the program's been around.
There are 11 sanctuaries or national marine monuments that were expanded or created in the last 10 years, and one of the big ones is right here in our area. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was expanded in 2008 by President Bush, when scientists had discovered this really cool underwater dormant volcano off the coast of Monterey, called Davidson Seamount. He basically drew a square in the ocean and added that area to the Monterey Sanctuary. So Bush added that and now Trump may take it away.
Watt: What about California's other national marine sanctuaries? What else could lose protections under this order from the Trump Administration?
Rogers: Further north, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary -- which are mostly off the Marin County coast and have been there for decades -- they were doubled in size by President Obama in 2015. That essentially banned new offshore oil drilling forever in those places. That is potentially on the chopping block now, and Trump may shrink those back in size as well.
Marine Sanctuaries at Risk
In April, President Trump asked U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to evaluate whether 11 national marine sanctuaries and monuments created or expanded since 2007 would be appropriate for opening up to oil and gas exploration.
Watt: What about marine sanctuaries outside of California waters, like this new one near Hawaii?
Rogers: There's a whole range of sanctuaries that could be affected. Obama created one off New England to protect canyons and underwater mountains there. George Bush created one to protect the Marianas Trench; it's actually a national marine monument, but folks may know this is the deepest ocean area in the world, more than six miles deep. There are also areas expanded or created off American Samoa, and off the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, from Kauai all the way up to Midway, with amazing coral reefs. All of these places are now under review.
Watt: So, the reason Trump wants to do this is that the administration is looking to expand oil drilling in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, but I would think that just reversing the sanctuary protections isn't enough to make that happen. Does California have a say in oil drilling off its coast?
Rogers: Yes, it does. As folks may know, we already have about 30 offshore oil platforms in California. They're all off the southern California counties -- Santa Barbara, Ventura, LA, those counties basically. There's been drilling there since the 1950s, and after the famous 1969 Santa Barbara oil blowout, California's really been involved in an activist way. Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, signed a law banning all new oil drilling out to three miles in state waters, so that is locked in. But anything beyond that, which is federal waters, the federal government can push forward and try to lease these areas to oil companies. President Obama left office saying, "No leasing off California in new areas until at least 2022." Trump is talking about undoing that as well. The Coastal Commission would fight if they try to lease new areas. There'd be lots of lawsuits, but taking sanctuaries away is the first step to new drilling.
Watt: What are the oil companies saying about this?
Rogers: Interestingly, national oil companies like the idea of taking marine sanctuaries and shrinking them. But I called the Western States Petroleum Association, which is the main industry trade group for California for oil companies, and they said none of their members are actually interested in drilling in these sanctuary areas. And they weren't going to be submitting public comment, so apparently the oil industry in California isn't really interested right now in drilling in these areas.
Watt: The public comment ends on July 26. What happens after that?
Rogers: The Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross -- who's in charge of NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the agency that oversees the sanctuaries -- he will make a recommendation in October back to President Trump on which ones to kill or shrink. After that, the president's going to make a decision.