Maldo: No On Oil Drilling Plan

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If there was any ambiguity about where California's lieutenant governor designate stands on a current controversial oil drilling proposal, then the politician himself seems to have settled the issue -- for now -- by putting himself on the same side of opponents who say the plan's benefits are unenforceable.

Abel Maldonado, the state senator who tomorrow finds himself sitting in his confirmation hearing to be the next 'lite guv,' has said twice in as many days that he opposes the current offshore drilling proposal known as Tranquillon Ridge.

If Maldo gets to add the title 'Lt. Governor' to his name, his position on the proposal is key to the project's fate. That's because the state's second highest ranking official is one of three members of the State Lands Commission, the government entity that is the first hurdle for any new offshore oil drilling project to clear.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down with the Republican in his Capitol office for an extended interview, portions of which will air tomorrow morning on The California Report. We talked a lot about the so-called T-Ridge project, and Maldo repeated many of those comments this afternoon in a conference call with the Capitol press corps.

It's important to remember that the senator's home turf is Santa Maria in northern Santa Barbara County -- the same part of the county in which oil from the T-Ridge project off Platform Irene would be piped and processed.

And in our chat yesterday, he was crystal clear about the plan to allow a new drilling operation into state waters from the platform, which sits just over the boundary in federal waters.

"I think it's a non-starter where it's at," he said.

Like so many critics of the proposal, Maldonado cites the very same red flag raised by both Controller John Chiang and former lieutenant governor -- now Congressman John Garamendi -- during a State Lands Commission hearing in 2009: that the touted 'win-win' nature of the proposal is unenforceable.

Platform Irene, off the coast of northern Santa Barbara County (Photo: John Myers, KQED)The plan, crafted by both oil company Plains Exploration & Production (PXP) and the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center -- says that in exchange for new drilling in the T-Ridge oilfield, PXP will later cease all operations on Platform Irene and three other nearby oil platforms (plus some other benefits like land donation and financial help for local climate change efforts).

But Maldonado points out that the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) -- and not the state -- controls the ultimate fate of those platforms. "How could you vote for that?" he said in our interview on Monday. "There is no assurance that those platforms will come down."

Maldo's position on the project hadn't been crystal clear until this week. While he voted against it during last summer's budget debate, that was a version of the project that authorized the governor to sidestep the State Lands Commission... a version to which even the enviros who struck the deal were opposed.

Schwarzenegger appoints Maldonado (Photo: Governor's Office)And his position puts him squarely at odds with his proclaimed "soulmate," the guy who nominated him for the new job -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor is strongly pushing for approval of the T-Ridge project and said last week that his support is largely driven by the fact that royalties from the project could help clean up the state's budget mess.

Maldonado's emphatic 'no' is, of course, only on the project as it now stands; environmentalists say they are working on changes which they believe may assuage some of the concerns. But his feelings about offshore drilling in general seem came out in our chat.

"I don't like those platforms," said Maldonado in talking about the many oil operations that dot the horizon along Highway 101. "My grandpa used to say, 'They don't make coastline anymore, so protect what we have.'"

It's also worth noting that the nominee had some choice words in our interview for the environmentalists who struck the deal, after the veteran journalists at Calbuzz recently published the heretofore confidential T-Ridge agreement -- an agreement that includes up to $100,000 in reimbursement of costs for the environmental advocates. "I have great concerns about that," said Maldonado in our interview.

His opposition to T-Ridge will surely be unwelcome news to the executives at PXP, who have been pushing hard for the project's approval in the wake of Garamendi's departure from the LG job. And make no mistake, there's big money at stake. This morning, a pair of Wall Street analysts called me -- they didn't want their names used with this story -- to ask about Maldonado's chances of being confirmed. The money managers said they believe the approval of T-Ridge would alone add as much as $7 to each share of PXP stock.

Some Democrats have been attempting to use the uncertainty of Maldonado's position on the T-Ridge project as reason that legislative leaders should reject his nomination. For now, though, that line of attack seems to have fallen flat.

Below you can hear the unedited segment of our interview in which Maldonado talks about the Tranquillon Ridge project.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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