Angry Peninsula Residents Move to Block Offshore Oil Lease Plan

Times Staff Writer

Residents and city officials, enraged by a tentative agreement to open waters near the Palos Verdes Peninsula to offshore oil leasing, have launched a frantic campaign to keep oil rigs away from the affluent residential community.

Leaders of homeowner associations, City Council members, Boy Scouts and other residents last week condemned the proposal, which includes an area three miles from the Peninsula among 1,000 square miles of ocean floor that would be opened to oil exploration in two to three years.

"We have a very fragile ecology here," said Naomi Phillips, president of the Rancho Palos Verdes Council of Homeowners Assns. "In the case of ecology, oil and water do not mix." The council is a coalition of 24 homeowner groups that voted unanimously to oppose the leasing.

The City Council unanimously approved a resolution last week to oppose the agreement, and the city staff is gathering information to substantiate concerns that drilling for oil would pose serious environmental hazards to the Peninsula coastline. Rancho Palos Verdes extends along the southern portion of the Peninsula and faces tracts that could be leased under the agreement. There currently is no drilling near the Peninsula.

Meeting With Hodel

In an effort to persuade federal officials to abandon the plan, Mayor John C. McTaggart will meet Aug. 30 in Long Beach with Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, who will be making a 12-stop tour of California at the end of this month to hear public reaction to the leasing proposal. He is expected to decide next month, after Congress reconvenes from its summer recess, whether to implement the agreement.

"It is really of great urgency" that the city aggressively oppose the agreement, city resident Stella LaRose told the City Council last week.

City Councilman Robert Ryan said the city has also asked Hodel to make a side trip to Rancho Palos Verdes to see firsthand why residents oppose offshore drilling. Officials in Washington said last week that the secretary's itinerary does not include a Palos Verdes stop, although he will view the Peninsula and other areas affected by the proposal from a plane.

Hodel hammered out the disputed leasing agreement last month with a bipartisan group of California lawmakers. The group hoped to settle the matter before Congress considered extending its controversial drilling ban on 58,000 square miles of ocean floor. The 4-year-old moratorium expires at the end of September.

Coalition Formed

The compromise spares most coastal waters in Southern California now included in the moratorium, except for about 330 square miles off Los Angeles, Orange and northern San Diego counties. Officials from Orange County coastal cities have already formed a coalition to fight the opening of 54 square miles off their shores.

Although maps showing which areas would be open to leasing are inexact, officials estimate that about 50 square miles off San Pedro and Palos Verdes would be affected by the proposal.

Bill Grant, regional director of the Mineral Management Service, cautioned, however, that the tentative agreement determines only what tracts of land would be considered for leases during the next five years. He said the tracts would still need to pass environmental reviews and public hearings before the Department of the Interior would solicit bids from oil companies. He said it would be two to three years before any tracts are ready to lease.

The leasing proposal--which Interior officials are carefully referring to as "preliminary" and "tentative"--came under heavy fire last week in Washington by 11 of the state's 18 Republican congressmen, who complained that Hodel had not consulted them about the drilling restrictions. Among those disgruntled lawmakers was Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), who represents the Peninsula.

Favor Leasing

The congressmen, who favor more leasing than permitted under the proposal, sent a letter to President Reagan urging that Hodel reopen discussions or abandon the agreement altogether. The letter called the agreement "nothing more than an administrative moratorium."

The lawmakers also complained that the agreement shifts the environmental risks of new exploration to a few restricted areas--in some cases, their own districts.

Lungren, a strong supporter of offshore oil leasing, said in a telephone interview last week that his district was unfairly singled out in the proposal. He said legislators opposed to oil leasing intentionally excluded him from the discussions so they could spare their districts from any new drilling.

"The agreement was determined through politics, not where it is environmentally safe and where the oil is," Lungren said. "Those who have supported the position of no drilling off the coast wanted to prevail by protecting their districts."

Not Opposed to Drilling

Lungren said he does not oppose drilling off the Palos Verdes Peninsula if it meets all environmental conditions, but he said he resents residents from his district being forced to bear the brunt of oil exploration when other districts have been spared. Sites off Northern California are considered to have more oil deposits, he said.

He was particularly critical of the proposal's provisions to ban drilling near San Diego. Rep. Bill Lowery, who represents the San Diego area, was one of the chief Republican negotiators in the talks with Hodel.

"I do not object to oil drilling from the standpoint that there will be a couple of platforms offshore that many of us would not like to see," Lungren said. "I would object if there is a true environmental sensitivity that would be affected.

"As long as we are treated fairly, we would basically be willing to accept that which is necessary for our country's need."

Oppose Drilling

Residents and city officials in Rancho Palos Verdes, however, say they are opposed to any drilling off the Peninsula. They point foremost to environmental concerns, particularly the effect drilling would have on marine life and whale migrations.

"This is not just a selfish and provincial outlook for the benefit of a few," LaRose said in a letter opposing the drilling. "Expeditions are organized for countless school children to explore our precious and endangered tide pools. . . .

"One can imagine visitors who brave impossible traffic to our designated whale-watching sites, only to see little man-made islands dotting the seascape. What will happen to the whale migratory pattern? Will there still be whales to watch?"

Bob Hattoy, the Southern California representative of the Sierra Club, said the marine life and tide pools along the Peninsula are parts of a delicately balanced ecological system that would be seriously disrupted by oil production three miles offshore.

Hattoy said oil production poses the threat of toxic air pollution, destructive oil spills and visual pollution. "Offshore oil leases are not given in a vacuum" he said. "You are going to need tankers or pipelines. It results in an industrialization of the entire coastal area."

Agreement Can Be Changed

In the wake of a growing public outcry, Lungren and several other California Republicans met with Hodel for an informal discussion July 23. Several congressmen who attended the closed-door session quoted the secretary at that time as saying the proposal "is only a tentative agreement and can be changed at any time."

The congressmen said Hodel indicated that he may reject the proposal in favor of a less restrictive agreement, saying that residents opposed to oil drilling would be lucky to keep drilling within the limits in the proposal. If the proposal is abandoned and Congress does not extend the moratorium, 58,000 square miles of sea floor--instead of 1,000 square miles as proposed--would no longer be off limits to oil company exploration. Under the proposal, 57,000 square miles would remain protected until the year 2000.

"Hodel was saying that we will be lucky if we can keep what we already have and that there is a strong chance he may decide that it's in the national interest to have more oil drilling, not less," said Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad).

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