SAN JOSE, Calif. — California lawmakers are quietly mounting a campaign to persuade President Barack Obama to protect a 50-mile stretch of California coast along Sonoma and Mendocino counties by the end of this month — a move that would permanently ban offshore oil drilling there and create California’s largest ocean preserve in 20 years.
The group, led by Rep. Lynn Woolsey and Sen. Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, is asking Obama to sign an executive order establishing a new offshore national monument extending from Bodega Bay near the Marin County-Sonoma County border north to Point Arena in Mendocino County.
The area is one of the West’s most scenic coastal landscapes, famous for its steep cliffs, rugged, wind-swept bluffs and long, sandy beaches. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, oil companies showed interest in sinking new rigs off the area.
The proposed monument, which Obama could create without a vote of Congress, would effectively enlarge the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the adjacent Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary by adding 2,771 square miles of newly protected ocean — more than doubling the 1,811 square miles of waters the two sanctuaries now encompass.
“This is one of the most pristine areas in the world," Woolsey said. “It isn’t only the romantic part of it; it’s about protecting fishing and tourism. Those industries depend on the coast."
At a White House Christmas party this week, Woolsey discussed the issue with Vice President Joe Biden and briefly with the president as he was posing for photos with members of Congress. Last month, she talked with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about the issue when he visited Marin County.
Meanwhile, 12 California House members sent Obama a letter last week seeking the new preserve.
“Unfortunately, the hazards faced by our coast area are real and imminent," the letter said. “That is why we respectfully request that you create a marine monument that includes the expanded boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones and the Cordell Bank sanctuaries."
Woolsey has tried to pass bills in Congress since 2004 with the same goal. But her most recent effort, HR 192, has been blocked by House Republican leaders who oppose new limits on oil and gas production. And Woolsey is retiring from Congress when the current session ends Jan. 3.
White House spokesman Brandon Lepow declined to comment on the sanctuary proposal.
Oil industry officials downplayed the issue.
“I know there were some prior assessments that suggested there might be a small amount of oil there," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. But “it has never been an area to my knowledge that has been considered a significant source of energy."
Still, he said, “we do ask that the nation’s energy security and energy future get careful and thoughtful consideration whenever there are proposals like this."
The creation of the new protected area has been endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown, along with fishing groups. Environmentalists say Obama could use the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to create national monuments by executive order, to help boost his conservation legacy.
“This is a national treasure that needs to be protected," said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C.