Governor Ditches T-Ridge

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Well, did you see this one coming?

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today pulled his support for the controversial Tranquillon Ridge oil drilling project, effectively killing a project that had only become more controversial ever since he endorsed it more than a year ago.

"That will not happen in California," said Schwarzenegger in an unexpected comment as part of what was otherwise a routine event announcing the start of fire season.

The governor said the Gulf Coast oil disaster had made it clear to him that promises that T-Ridge would be safely done fell flat alongside pictures of the giant oil slick back east.

"I'm sure that they also were assured that it is safe to drill," he said. "You turn on television and you see this enormous disaster, and you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk?"

John Myers

Photo: John Myers

The announcement seemed to catch everyone off guard, including the Santa Barbara County environmentalists who have argued the deal... limited new drilling in exchange for four offshore platforms being taken out of service years ahead of schedule... is one of those rare 'win-win' events.

"That's unfortunate," said Hannah Beth Jackson, a former assemblymember and advocate for the group, when told about the governor's decision this afternoon. The main architect of the proposal, Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara, said Schwarzenegger's position now seems to contradict itself -- that if he's really worried about the danger of a major oil spill, he would have continued to support a proposal that called for a shutdown of four platforms, platforms that currently can operate indefinitely.

So is she frustrated with the governor? "No," said Krop. "My frustration is on the merits" of the project. Krop says it's important to realize that the oil company in question, Plains Exploration & Production, is already drilling into the T-Ridge oil deposit; it's just that they're doing it from the federal waters side of the region, and not the state waters (which are the first three miles of ocean).

Schwarzenegger's abandonment of T-Ridge apparently marks the final point on his arc of his feelings about offshore oil drilling. The governor had long been a critic of the industry, so much so that enviros had little trouble pasting together his greatest 'no drilling' hits into an online video when he was pushing for T-Ridge.

And then there are his comments in a question I asked of him back in January, where he further distanced himself from environmentalists by suggesting that the budgetary help offered by royalties from T-Ridge outweighed his longstanding principles.

While the governor doesn't have direct control over the fate of Tranquillon Ridge -- that belongs to the State Lands Commission -- his appointee to that panel, plus the existing opposition, means it's pretty much a moot point for the foreseeable future. It also blows a $200 million hole in his budget proposal from January, one he's scheduled to update next Friday.

And, in the final analysis, it was the revenue stream from the T-Ridge drilling project that became the greatest liability. Once Schwarzenegger tried to insert the project into the budget debate last summer, removing it from the purview of the State Lands Commission, even its supporters in the enviro community balked. For many supporters, the governor made project radioactive by focusing on the payment and not the overall policy.

But that appears to now be for the history books. No new offshore drilling will now happen off California (assuming the Obama administration pledge holds), but at the same time, no existing drilling will be phased out.

Click here for my earlier coverage of T-Ridge.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new 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. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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