Obama administration to expand marine sanctuary off northern Calif.

Thu Dec 20, 2012 8:33pm EST

* Rich waters are home to whales, abundant fisheries

* Area larger than Delaware will be protected

* Energy companies have little interest in the area

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The administration of President Barack Obama plans to more than double the size of two marine sanctuaries off the northern California coast to guard the near pristine waters from oil drilling in a move that sidesteps potential hurdles in Congress, federal officials said on Thursday.

The proposed expansion would protect nutrient-rich Pacific Ocean waters off the coast north of San Francisco that are home to humpback whales, great white sharks and abundant fish stocks key to commercial fishing and tourism, officials said.

"This area is a national treasure, it needs and it deserves permanent protection from oil and gas exploration," said Representative Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat who represents Marin and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco.

"Believe me when I tell you that no one is going to vacation on the Sonoma coast if they are going to be looking at oil derricks," she said.

The protected zone covers nearly 2,800 square nautical miles, an area slightly bigger than the state of Delaware. From north to south, it ranges from the coast of the town of Point Arena to the waters beyond San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

Amid widespread public opposition in California to offshore drilling, the oil industry says it has no active plans to exploit the designated area.

Woolsey, who is retiring after 10 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, has pushed for the marine sanctuary expansion since 2004, but says Republican opposition in Congress was preventing its passage.

"The plain fact is that the Republican House majority will not debate or pass this bill," Woolsey said.

A House bill passed in 2008 did not get past the Democratic-controlled Senate that year.

Under pressure from Democratic leaders in Washington, the Obama administration's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed expanding two existing federal marine sanctuaries, Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones.

The process will take up to two years as the agency hears from the public, officials said. The two existing sanctuaries cover over 1,800 nautical square miles, according to NOAA.

Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said none of the oil companies in his organization have shown an interest in drilling in northern California.

"It's not an area where there is any expectation that additional energy is going to be brought to market," Hull said.

Several Republican members of Congress active on energy issues could not be reached for comment on the plan.

All of California's offshore oil production comes from 32 platforms off the southern coast of the state, and those derricks date from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hull said. Drilling in federal waters off California produces only 54,000 barrels a day, compared to 1.3 million a day in the Gulf of Mexico, according to U.S. government figures.

The proposed waters to be protected in northern California has North America's most intense "upswelling" zone, where nutrient-rich water comes to the ocean surface and feeds many kinds of marine life, according to NOAA. (Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham)