T-Ridge: Not So Fast, Says Maldo

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It appears Abel Maldonado is one step closer to becoming California's next lieutenant governor after today's vote by the Assembly Rules Committee, with a full Assembly vote now scheduled for tomorrow.

But comments today from Maldo, as well as the positions of other prominent challengers for the job this fall, don't bode well for backers of a limited -- but controversial -- plan for new oil drilling off the Central Coast.

John Myers

Photo: John Myers

Last week, environmental backers of the Tranquillon Ridge project (full coverage) released a revised deal that calls for the oil company, Plains Exploration & Production (PXP), to shut down four offshore platforms early as well as donate land and pay royalties to the state. The revisions were in response to both the criticism of the original plan by a number of other environmentalists and state officials, and the 2009 actual rejection of that original proposal by the California State Lands Commission.

If you haven't been following every turn of this saga, the nexus to Maldo is simple: California's 'Lite Guv' may not have a whole lot of formal duties, but he or she does serve as one of the three members of the State Lands Commission. And with the other two members split on the proposal, the next Lite Guv gets the deciding vote on whether 'T-Ridge' lives or dies.

When Maldonado was originally tapped by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to fill the remaining time on the term of John Garamendi, the Central Coast Republican appeared unimpressed with the T-Ridge deal. (And it's not an issue on which he's unfamiliar: the project's location near the offshore Platform Irene is his senatorial district, a short flight via chopper from the airport in Maldo's hometown of Santa Maria.)

"I think it's a non-starter," he told me in a February interview when I asked about the project. Maldonado's objection at the time was focused on the fact that the original deal between enviros and PXP was confidential, and that once a copy was made public it revealed that the lead group -- the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara -- was to receive a $100,000 fee for its work on getting T-Ridge approved by the state.

But neither of those things exist any longer; the revised deal was made public immediately and the $100,000 fee has been replaced by a more general agreement to cover the group's costs.

John Myers

Photo: John Myers

Even so, Maldonado remains opposed.

"We needed to have 100% proof that those platforms would come down," he said after today's committee vote. "I just don't understand how someone can say, 'We'll remove a platform' from a property that they don't own."

What the senator/nominee is referring to is the long-running debate about whether the federal government will allow drilling operations from the four platforms to end, per the deal PXP intends to strike with enviros and the state. The platforms sit in federal waters and drill into areas leased from the federal government, and critics have long worried the feds will balk when the time comes for things to shut down. The environmentalists who struck the deal think they've made major improvements to the deal that make that scenario unrealistic, but Maldonado appears unconvinced.

And if backers can't get Maldo on board, then they may really be in a pickle. That's because both major Democratic contenders for the job -- Gavin Newsom and Janice Hahn -- oppose any new offshore drilling.

(To be fair, Maldonado's main GOP primary opponent, current state senator Sam Aanestad, supports the project, and not everyone believes Maldo will win the June 8 priimary, though most folks believe he'll have a huge leg up if he's confirmed by the Legislature.)

Of course, were one to play the political guessing game... and assume that perhaps Maldo could be persuaded at some point... then you'd have to assume that, should he win the GOP primary, he'd get bludgeoned by either Newsom or Hahn during the general election for voting to approve the oil drilling project.

Meantime, there's some real guessing game about the way forward for the environmentalists and oil company. The company has not yet resubmitted the proposal to the State Lands Commission, probably because once it does, action generally must be taken within six months.

If Maldo is confirmed as soon as this week, and sworn in soon after as lieutenant governor, do supporters want to force a SLC vote before the November election? Do they want a vote afterwards, when they might hope for a newly elected Lt. Gov. Maldonado to have some political breathing room allowing a second look? Or do they think Maldo's chances as a Republican to win the job outright are so risky that the best scenario is to push forward now?

No easy answers there.

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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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