A plan to protect waters off Marin and Sonoma counties from oil and gas exploration by expanding the boundaries of marine sanctuaries got a boost Thursday when federal officials announced they would begin the process to look at those changes.
With her tenure as a congresswoman coming to a close, Rep. Lynn Woolsey had asked President Barack Obama to sign an order establishing a marine monument, which would have immediately expanded the boundaries of Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones marine sanctuaries.
Since 2004, the Petaluma Democrat has been attempting to get Congress to expand the boundaries, but with no success.
Instead National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said Thursday they will hold public hearings early next year and then review comments to determine "if an expansion is beneficial." If so, an environmental impact statement would be done to assess expansion alternatives. There would be more public comment to follow. The whole process could take up to two years.
While the president did not sign an order to establish the monument, moving the process to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration effectively bypasses Congress and greatly boosts the chance for expansion.
National marine sanctuaries prohibit drilling, but they do not ban fishing or boating.
"For many years, the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries have provided protection to the Marin County coast," said Woolsey, whose last day in office is Jan. 3. "But now we're moving toward expanding those boundaries to cover some of our most productive waters and richest marine habitats to the north, and to protect our initial investment downstream."
While there are no proposals to drill off the coast presently, Woolsey is seeking the protection as a preemptive move.
She was joined by Sen. Barbara Boxer in asking President Obama to establish a marine monument covering about 2,800 square miles off the Marin, Sonoma and the southern area of Mendocino.
The United States has 13 national marine sanctuaries in a system designated by Congress and run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect and preserve "biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy."
Gulf of the Farallones is a 1,255-square-mile area made up of tidal flats, rocky intertidal areas, wetlands, subtidal reefs and coastal beaches. The sanctuary is home to thousands of seals and sea lions, and hosts great white sharks and the largest concentration of breeding seabirds in the continental U.S.
In addition, the Cordell Bank Sanctuary sits beyond the Gulf of the Farallones, 52 miles northwest of Marin's coast, at the edge of the continental shelf. It encompasses 526 square miles. Endangered humpback whales, porpoises, albatross and marine species flourish in the marine environment.
Woolsey's plan would extend the boundaries of those sanctuaries north up to Sonoma and Mendocino counties and westward far off Marin's coast.
"We all understand how important healthy oceans are," said Fairfax resident Dan Howard, superintendent of Cordell Bank. "Healthy oceans also mean a healthy economy. We are looking to protect these areas."
The first hearing on the expansion will be at 6 p.m. Jan. 24 at Bodega Bay Grange Hall at 1370 Bodega Ave. in Bodega Bay.
Contact Mark Prado via email at firstname.lastname@example.org ___