Saturday, July 11, 2009




Few California officials have done more than Lt. Gov. John Garamendi in recent years to protect California's coast from the predations of oil drilling and liquefied natural gas (LNG).

So you'd think environmentalists should be his strongest backers as he seeks the 10th District congressional seat long occupied by Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who gave it up to be undersecretary of state in the Obama Administration.

But the Sept. 1 special primary election to replace Tauscher in a district that runs from the East Bay suburbs of San Francisco to the northern San Joaquin Valley is much more complex than it looks. And that's complicated enough, with two popular state legislators among those running against Garamendi on the Democratic side.

For if Garamendi goes to Congress, he must immediately resign his current office. This would give Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a rare opportunity to appoint someone of his choosing to a statewide office that has sometimes been a dead end and other times served as a convenient step on the ladder leading to the office Schwarzenegger now holds.

More importantly, perhaps, if Garamendi leaves his present office, the balance of power would change instantly on an obscure but sometimes powerful commission he now chairs because he is lieutenant governor.

That would be the state Lands Commission, which controls use of state-owned tidelands and other less controversial properties. As chairman of the Lands Commission, Garamendi presided over hearings that led to the defeat of a seemingly-greased plan to import LNG from Indonesia and other foreign points through a floating terminal off the coast of southern Ventura County. Schwarzenegger's representative on the commission voted for the LNG project, even though the governor - who had long backed the plan - later gave it a superfluous, token veto.

More recently, Garamendi and state Controller John Chiang, another Democrat who sits on the Lands Commission by virtue of his office, outvoted Schwarzenegger's representative on the commission to thwart a Schwarzenegger-backed plan to drill oil from state tidelands in the Santa Barbara Channel from an existing platform.

Make no mistake, Schwarzenegger wants new oil drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel as much as he ever wanted the putative LNG project.

Every time he looks at the channel, he sees dollar signs. Schwarzenegger contends an agreement he negotiated with a Houston oil drilling firm that now operates a platform in federal waters off Santa Barbara would produce $1.8 billion in royalties for the cash strapped state over 10 years, about $180 million a year. His deal would allow slant-drilling under state-owned waters from that existing derrick, known as Platform Irene. The deal also demands the platform be closed by 2022.

But environmentalists worry about oil leaks from new drilling and they contend the language promising a shutdown in 12 years is also leaky.

Most of all, they worry about symbolism. Democratic Assemblyman Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara, now running for state attorney general, contends that if new oil drilling can be permitted in the Santa Barbara Channel, ground zero for the worldwide environmental movement, noplace is safe, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But Schwarzenegger wants to push ahead, even if it means an end run around the Lands Commission. He's now pushing legislation to do that by taking authority over the Platform Irene project, and only that project, away from the commission. Odds are his proposal will not get far against environmentalist opposition in Sacramento, which would then make going back to the Lands Commission the only way to push this through.

But the moment Garamendi leaves the commission and is replaced by Schwarzenegger's pick for lieutenant governor, the governor will control the commission for the year or more left in his term. As a rule, his appointees do precisely what he wants even when - as would be the case here - he lacks the power to remove them.

One example is the state Public Utilities Commission, whose members serve fixed five-year terms. Independent as that's supposed to make them, commissioners named by Schwarzenegger have consistently favored his causes and the utilities, oil companies and others who are major donors to his various political committees.

All of which creates a striking political irony: Garamendi's continued presence on the Lands Commission is vital to environmentalists who want to keep the lid on new oil drilling and the several LNG proposals that are still active. And that can be assured only if he loses in the upcoming special election.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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