Democrats have tried for years to make the environment a focus in Orange County elections, campaigning on the idea that combating climate change can be in voters’ long-term and short-term interests.
Until now, those efforts have had limited results. While surveys show local voters across the political spectrum are more concerned about environmental issues today than they were a decade ago, the complex and protracted nature of such threats have rendered them less than decisive at the ballot box. Instead, voters have tended to act on more immediate concerns, such as the economy or homelessness.
But experts say the pipeline spill that has dumped up to 131,000 gallons of oil in the ocean off Orange County — shutting down beaches, killing wildlife and hurting area businesses, possibly for years to come — could shift that political dynamic.
“The oil spill will absolutely impact the 2022 election in Orange County,” said Adam Probolsky, a political consultant and pollster based in Newport Beach.
While voters tend to have short memories, and the general election is still more than a year away, Probolsky said they don’t tend to forget environmental disasters. Plus, he noted, Orange County could still be cleaning up when voters go to the polls next year.
“Voters want a strong response to this spill,” Probolsky said. “Elected officials who come out fighting will gain support. Those who say the same old words and offer nothing new will lose ground.”
Local Democrats, particularly in competitive state and federal districts, have come out swinging with aggressive calls to end all future and even current offshore drilling. They hope the disaster might finally make such bans, which many have pitched for years, a priority for voters.
The environmental damages that come from oil drilling and other old-school energy practices — including the storage nuclear waste in San Onofre — “are not theoretical issues, they are very real world issues that impact day to day life in my district,” said Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat who represents California’s 49th congressional district, which includes south county beach cities and much of north San Diego County.
Before he entered congress, in 2018, Levin was an environmental lawyer who listed “clean energy advocate” as his job description on that year’s ballot. He said improving the environment is “probably the key reason” he ran for office.
But while he said the oil spill is drawing short-term attention to the risks of offshore drilling — and he’s pushing hard this week to get voters behind the idea that it’s time to ban the practice in California — Levin suggested the winning political argument for a healthy environment is practical, not moral.
Toward that end, Levin pointed to a recent study that found tourism, fishing and recreation generate more than 600,000 jobs and $43 billion a year to California’s economy, numbers that dwarf the economic bump from offshore drilling.
“If you look at what’s happening with this spill, you see real harm to our ecology and our economy.”
The spill also is part of a broader chain of recent environmental events — including wildfires, drought, hurricanes and other natural disasters — that are unambiguous, life-changing effects of climate change. Levin and others hope voters will want aggressive solutions to those problems.
“During hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico, there were 350 oil spills,” said Harley Rouda, a Democrat who won Orange County’s coastal 48th District in 2018 on an environment-focused platform, only to lose the seat to Republican Michelle Steel in 2020. He’s hoping to win the seat back next year, in what’s expected to be one of the most closely watched House races in the country.
“These storms are only going to get worse,” Rouda added. “And we’re going to see that play out here on our Orange County coast.”
As Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach, put it: California is like one great big disaster movie, and it’s time to do something about it.
Petrie-Norris, Levin and a half-dozen other state and local elected officials demanded an end to off-shore oil drilling in California on Thursday, Oct. 7, flanked by representatives from more than a dozen environmental groups.
“These are all things the public is becoming more and more aware of as a side effect of the climate crisis that is man made,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica. “And we know the solutions have to come from us as well.”
Several area Republicans also have come out in support of a ban on offshore drilling, including Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen, R-Fountain Valley, and Brian Maryott of San Juan Capistrano, who’s running to unseat Levin in CA-49.
“We simply do not need that capacity and likely never will,” Maryott said.
But Republicans — many of whom have questioned climate science or backed President Donald Trump, who dismantled environmental regulations, pulled the country out of the Paris Climate Accord and famously argued that global warming is a “hoax” — might find the environment to be a tricky political issue.
In the wake of the oil spill, Steel of CA-48 quickly pushed for a disaster declaration and on Oct. 5 sent a letter, with support from Rep. Young Kim, R-La Habra, to President Joe Biden demanding a federal investigation into the pipeline’s history of violations, causes of the spill and any delays by federal officials in responding to the crisis.
Such steps are a given for local political leaders after such a disaster, said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College. But, Balma said, they amount to little more than “saber rattling.” She added that Steel, among others, “just doesn’t have a card to play strongly here.”
“This is one of those situations where you’re just on the wrong side, policy-wise, for what the public wants to hear,” Balma said.
“They do not want to hear ‘deregulation.’ They do not want to hear ‘less government.’ This is a time where the government is needed. This is a time where people want a policy to change.”
Steel, who supports Trump, won’t say if she supports a ban on offshore drilling. Her office said this week that Steel supports “efforts to protect our coastline” by “enforcing rules and regulations already in place,” but they wouldn’t say what steps, if any, she supports to prevent such disasters in the future.
Until a few days ago, Steel’s website included a photo of an offshore oil rig to illustrate the section on “energy and the environment.” After critics mentioned the image on social media, Steel’s team changed the photo to one of the Huntington Beach pier.
Democrats also seized on the fact that both Steel and Kim have taken political contributions from oil companies, while Steel also has held stock in oil producing companies, per federal disclosures. In an Oct. 7 press release, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee labeled the pair “big oil darlings.”
In response, Steel’s team criticized Democrats for “politicizing” the spill, adding “while they remain focused on playing politics, Rep. Steel will remain focused on helping our Orange County community during this difficult time.”
When it comes to banning offshore drilling, officials believe the spill has made the public aware of — and potentially outraged by — the risks posed by drilling in the ocean.
“We are experiencing the effects of climate change in a self-evident way,” Levin said. “If you have one candidate willing to express a need to deal with climate crisis, and another who is not, that will be clear to voters.”
A ban on offshore drilling would require federal action — much of the drilling is in federal, not state, waters — as well as plans to phase out existing operations, they said. There are 23 oil platforms in federal waters off the coast of California now, and nearly 1,200 active wells.
“The reason there is real opportunity for us to get traction on this is that a lot of these wells are actually losing money for their companies,” Petrie-Norris said. “There is, in fact, an economic incentive for them to wind down their operations.”
Others argue that even if ending off-shore drilling is complicated, it’s worth the effort.
“From a legal perspective, ultimately this may cost money…. there will be people strongly opposed to this… But we have to do it,” said state Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine.
On Oct. 5, Min said he planned to introduce legislation to end all offshore drilling in California waters. It was the first formal call to end all offshore drilling, including efforts allowed under current leases, in federal waters off of California’s coastline.
“The revenues and jobs created by offshore drilling are minuscule in size compared to the negative economic impacts this creates,” Min said.
In California, such an effort would reflect decades of progressive environmental legislation. Nationally, environmental legislation has been a tougher sell — but even that is in the works.
Levin points out that the massive infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress contains provisions to ban new federal oil and gas leasing off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. On Friday, Oct. 8, Levin, with support from Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, sent a letter urging House leadership to keep those provisions in the bill’s final reconciliation package.
“Oil pollution threatens the more than $2 billion in wages and $4.15 billion in gross domestic product generated by the marine economy in Orange County,” the letter states. “…Thousands of jobs in industries like tourism, recreation, and fishing rely on the decisions we make in the coming weeks and months.”
Even before the oil spill, that idea probably would have found support in politically mixed Orange County.
A recurring survey by Chapman University reflects how much local opinion has shifted on issues around climate change.
In 2010, Chapman’s annual survey on public opinion in Orange County showed locals were split about the seriousness and causes of climate change, with just slightly more than half the sample (54%) believing climate change was real. But in their 2020 survey, Chapman found strong majorities believe climate change is a serious problem (73%), that it is man-made (63%) and that it poses a serious threat to future generations (73%).
When asked why he thinks major environmental policy is so tough to get through congress, even as public support for such efforts grows, Rouda said, “follow the money.”
“As long as politicians in Washington, D.C. are lining their campaigns with mass donations from big oil, they’re going to continue to support big oils’ goals over what the public wants.”