Hodel Rethinking Ocean Drilling Plan : Secretary Hesitates on Environmentalists' Call to Put Vast Area Off Limits

Times Staff Writer

Faced with mounting oil industry opposition to a "preliminary agreement" that could shape oil and gas exploration off the California coast for the next 15 years, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel on Thursday called for reconsideration of a major provision won by environmentalists.

Under that provision, vast stretches of the ocean floor would be off limits to oil and gas exploration until the year 2000. But Hodel said that 15 years "may very well be too long a period of time to wait" in view of the nation's need for energy security and the time it takes to bring offshore tracts into production. The Interior secretary has been touring the state this week to assess reaction to the accord.

It was the second time in as many days that Hodel has raised questions about a major provision of the accord reached last month with fewer than a dozen environmentally oriented members of the California congressional delegation.

On Wednesday, Hodel said in Bakersfield that he would "restudy" the 150 tracts that were agreed to for exploration because oil companies had shown little interest in them. "Do we have the wrong 150?" Hodel asked.

Hodel's latest remark, which cast new doubt on whether the preliminary agreement could stand without significant revisions, followed a private meeting with Gov. George Deukmejian.

Not only has the oil industry vigorously protested the proposal, but U.S. Energy Secretary John S. Herrington has criticized the 15-year moratorium on developing 6,310 tracts. In addition, officials of Gulf Coast states are reportedly concerned that too much pressure will be placed on them if development off California is restricted.

"This is a very extraordinary process that I got involved with here," Hodel said at one point during Thursday's press conference.

"If I were still secretary of Energy and whoever was secretary of Interior negotiated this kind of preliminary agreement I would probably be saying exactly the same thing as the secretary of Energy," he added.

While saying that he understood the concerns, Hodel noted that for the last 20 years offshore oil and gas development on federal outer continental shelf had been stymied. He said he hopes that by negotiating with members of Congress who had opposed drilling in the past he could find a way to satisfy both environmental concerns and the need for energy.

"There's no reason to believe that for the next 20 years we're going to be better off unless we can come to some kind of consensus," Hodel said.

Deukmejian, in a prepared statement released after Hodel's briefing, stressed the need to reach a compromise "acceptable to the many disparate interest groups with strong opinions on this issue."

But the governor distanced himself from the accord that Hodel reached with the members of Congress. Deukmejian's statement emphasized that the governor was not a party to the negotiations and added that the state is continuing its own review, describing it as "part of a much longer and more formal process than the one which produced this agreement."

Arthur O. Spaulding, vice president and general manager of the Western Oil and Gas Assn., said in a telephone interview, "I think that he (Hodel) has gotten himself into a box, perhaps as a result of inadequate knowledge on how we have to operate and what the exigencies are in the future energy supply."

The area of keenest interest to the oil industry has been Central California from the Santa Maria basin north to Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, Spaulding said.

Based on previous exploratory drilling, Spaulding said, geologists believe the offshore geologic formations could yield rich oil fields.

The sedimentary basin off Oceanside also is considered to have great potential based on past oil industry tract nominations, he added.

The Eel River Basin near Eureka, which comprises two-thirds of the proposed lease sale areas in Hodel's tentative compromise, are of "only modest interest" because they are primarily natural gas-producing fields, Spaulding said.

"Our hope would be that he would choose to offer more attractive acreage at some time in the future, preferably as soon as possible," said Spaulding, who wrote to Hodel on Aug. 2 to express dismay over the tentative compromise.

Times staff writer Kristina Lindgren contributed to this story.

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