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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s been 45 years since a spill off Santa Barbara coated the picturesque coast with oil, killed wildlife, and prompted tough new pumping restrictions. But new worries have emerged in Sacramento.

It turns out that there was an exemption in a 1994 law that still allows drilling in a single portion of state-controlled, coastal waters. And a state lawmaker wants to immediately halt any possibility of drilling.

It’s no idle worry. There is a Northern California businessman with a project to lease land in Santa Barbara County, drill under the ocean floor, and pump oil from a place called Tranquillon Ridge.

To Bob Nunn, California oilman, developer, and farmer, his plan is safe, smart, and profitable. But not to state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat, who wants to stop the project before it gets started.

In June, she amended an unrelated bill to close what she called a loophole in California law that could allow drilling from an offshore oil field that’s partly in state-controlled waters off Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.

Approval of her proposal would “end the conversation once and for all,” she said, and “make a statement from the people of California reaffirming their commitment to protect the coastline.”

It also comes as environmentalists push a local initiative, Measure P, to ban hydraulic fracturing and other controversial types of land-based oil drilling in Santa Barbara County.

Meanwhile, Nunn’s company — Sunset Exploration Inc. — and partner Exxon Mobil Corp. want to get at the Tranquillon oil by drilling horizontally under the ocean floor from land on Air Force property, not from an ocean platform.

To do that, they’ll need to obtain permission from a long list of state and federal agencies, beginning with the Air Force.

At issue is the 20-year-old law that banned new oil and gas production leases in state waters, which extend three miles out to sea from the beach. The California Coastal Sanctuary Act says “oil and gas production in certain areas of state waters poses an unacceptably high risk of damage and disruption to the marine environment.”

The act, however, contains a significant exemption: It allows the State Lands Commission, an obscure but powerful state agency, to approve a new oil-drilling lease.

To do so, a majority of the three-member panel must declare that oil under state waters is being drained by nearby platforms in adjacent federal government-controlled areas, farther offshore. Tranquillon is the only spot on the California coast that would be affected by the exemption, experts said.

The basin holds an estimated 150 million barrels of high-quality petroleum that could flow for as long as 30 years, according to a Lands Commission report.

A portion of oil in the state zone is being sucked into federal jurisdiction by pumps on nearby Platform Irene in federal waters. The siphoning is denying the state hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties, Nunn said.

That lost revenue could flow back to the state and local governments if new wells are drilled on land at Vandenberg, he said.

What’s more, Nunn contends, drilling from land is safer than platform drilling.

“We never intersect the marine environment,” he said. “We drill vertically approximately half a mile and then drill out under the seabed.”

A recently released Air Force “opportunity assessment” of Nunn’s proposal concluded that onshore drilling could be economically beneficial and less environmentally risky than offshore drilling. However, it also noted that environmental critics of both types of drilling have raised “valid concerns.”

Environmentalists want none of it.

“There are more than a dozen significant, unavoidable impacts to the environment. A lot are related to oil spills,” said Linda Krop, an activist attorney at the Environmental Defense Council in Santa Barbara. “The risks and the impacts are too great, and there are no benefits.”

These issues have been the subject of studies, environmental analysis, and political debate.

A 2008 environmental study concluded that “oil spill impacts for marine biology, marine water quality, and commercial/recreational fishing would be reduced but not eliminated” by drilling from land.

Those concerns are certain to be re-evaluated if Nunn and his partners move ahead. The Air Force, Santa Barbara County, the State Lands Commission, and the Coastal Commission all have a role in approvals before any drilling could begin.

Nunn pointed out the Lands Commission in 2009 considered — but rejected — a related plan that had widespread support from Jackson and local environmentalists.

The 2009 plan also sought to tap Tranquillon, but from the water at Platform Irene — not from the shore. In turn, the drilling company agreed to remove offshore platforms — as well as two onshore crude processing plants — by 2022. But the Lands Commission killed the deal by a 2-1 vote.

Nunn’s proposal is not worth the risk to Santa Barbara’s tourism, recreation, and fishing industry, Krop said.

That’s why Jackson says she’s in a rush to pass her bill. “We need to close that loophole,” she said, so there won’t be any question or attempt to expand drilling, whether on land or off land.”

AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

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Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.