Continued from page 1

“It’s pretty bizarre. After five years, they still don’t understand; these are our leases. No one else can bid,” he said.

Mr. Nunn’s plan could wind up losing out to a competing proposal from an oil consortium that would tap into the oil fields using an existing offshore drilling rig known as “platform Irene.” But because the group was responsible for a small oil spill in the past, it had to drum up environmental support for its project by agreeing to stop drilling after 2022 after withdrawing only half the recoverable oil.

Money talks

Despite lingering concerns about oil spills, Mr. Nunn thinks the state and the county may now be more open to drilling, if only to help solve its monumental budget problems.

“We’re talking about California basically going broke with $18 billion in debt,” he said. He estimates his project would provide California with $4 billion in much-needed revenues from royalties.

In an attempt to clear the roadblocks laid down by the Air Force, Mr. Nunn said he has appealed to top Air Force brass as well as to Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff. While expressing some sympathy, the high-level administration officials offered no assistance in the end, he said.

One top administration official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the blame for the delay lies with California, not the White House.

“The whole problem is the state won’t let them go after the reserves,” the official said. “If the state were to act, they wouldn’t have to deal with Vandenberg.”

The official contended that the Bush administration was doing everything it can to promote drilling.

“This may be the first story that accuses the administration of not moving on drilling projects. Usually, we’re accused of trying to poke holes in national parks.”

Douglas K. Anthony, an official who has been handling the drilling matter for Santa Barbara County, said the Air Force is blocking the project on the Vandenberg base, dubbed the Vahevala project.

“Vandenberg sent [the oil companies] a letter saying they don’t have a site on base that’s acceptable at this time,” he said, adding that the county has turned its attention to the competing application for offshore drilling.

Mr. Anthony said that the changed political and economic environment could eventually lead the state to reconsider prohibitions that have stopped oil companies from tapping into major offshore oil fields for decades.

“Higher oil prices make it more attractive to drill offshore. We can see that play out in the halls of Congress,” he said. “To me, the first step is what happens with Congress. We’ve seen different scenarios proposed from no leasing to leasing only if the state consents.”

Going elsewhere

Story Continues →