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Oil Drilling Pact Demise Has Some Officials Worried; Others Are Elated

Times Staff Writer

The collapse of a tentative agreement that would have opened 150 ocean-floor tracts to oil drilling off the California coast sparked angry cries of betrayal from many members of the state’s congressional delegation Tuesday.

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) described Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel’s decision to scrap the agreement as “Let’s Break a Deal,” while Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) called the secretary “the J.R. Ewing of the California offshore oil drilling industry.”

But in North San Diego County--where five tracts off Oceanside and Carlsbad were slated for lease under the compromise--some politicians were virtually cheering the agreement’s demise.

“Gee, we’re rather pleased,” Oceanside Mayor Larry Bagley said. “We didn’t like the agreement in the first place and we don’t like it now. You could say we’re glad to see it die.”

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“What great news, is it really true?” Carlsbad Mayor Mary Casler said. “I’m very pleased. It sounds like the secretary heard our protest.”

Despite such sentiments, officials conceded that the agreement’s unraveling in no way guarantees North County protection from future drilling off the coast. Indeed, because a congressional moratorium on offshore drilling expires Sept. 30, the entire California coast could ultimately be vulnerable to exploration--unless the ban is extended or a modified compromise is quickly reached.

“There is some cause for alarm here, and unless we can exert some political muscle in Washington and get another year of the moratorium, we could see our whole shoreline opened up,” Supervisor Paul Eckert said.

Cedric Garland, chairman of Save Our Shore, a San Diego Sierra Club special task force on offshore drilling, agreed: “We opposed the agreement because we’re opposed to all offshore oil activity. But if the alternative is to open the entire coast, that’s far more injurious and we’d rather live with the initial compromise.”

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Under the original agreement, announced in July after weeks of negotiations involving Hodel and members of the California congressional delegation, 150 of 6,460 nine-square-mile tracts that are currently off-limits to the oil industry would have been opened for exploration. The remaining tracts were scheduled for protection until after the year 2000.

The North County tracts designated in the proposal lie 3 to 25 miles offshore between the northern edge of Oceanside and Leucadia. But Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) has been attempting to shift the drilling northward to waters off Camp Pendleton.

The compromise drew strong objections from the oil industry--which charged that only 10% of the tracts were of significant commercial value--and from some environmentalists, who favored continuing the drilling ban.

Interior Department officials said that such criticism, expressed to Hodel during an 11-stop public-hearing tour he made through the state last month, and evidence that the 150 sites had poor energy potential convinced the secretary to scrap the existing agreement.

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After a visit to Oceanside, where he heard numerous local officials attack the proposal and threaten lawsuits against the government if it were approved, Hodel hinted that the agreement might be scuttled, saying, “We may well have the wrong 150 (tracts) and we want to make sure we’ve got the right 150.”

Aides to Hodel said the secretary came up with the tracts under pressure--not truly understanding their resource potential and fearing that Congress was close to renewing a drilling moratorium.

Interior Department officials said a new list of alternative tracts containing only 14 of the original sites has been drawn up. But during a stormy, two-hour meeting Tuesday between the secretary and two dozen members of the California congressional delegation, Hodel declined to discuss the new drilling sites, which apparently will not be identified before next week.

Packard, however, said earlier this week that he expected additional North County tracts would be on the new list, which may contain “more sites, closer to shore and closer to populated areas.”

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“I don’t think San Diego County or any other area would fare any better (under the new proposal),” Packard said.

On Wednesday, the congressman said he was “disappointed” that Hodel has “apparently reneged at this late hour” but “somewhat pleased that I can now go back to my position of opposing any drilling off our North County shores.”

Packard said that the collapse of the agreement apparently left California’s congressmen with two options--attempting to win a one-year extension of the drilling moratorium or seeking congressional approval of the tentative agreement despite Hodel’s opposition.

Packard said he favors a moratorium because “I want to get an agreement both sides, including the secretary, can live with.”

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Unlike many of his colleagues, who had harsh words for Hodel, Packard said he believed that the secretary “exercised a good faith effort to find a solution . . . but apparently did not have what he needs to meet the mandate” of his office.

But some San Diegans disagreed.

Eckert said he was “not in the least bit surprised that the deal was scrapped” and suggested that the county and Packard had been “sold a bill of goods” by the secretary.

“He put on a show for everyone (during his public meetings here) and then went back to Washington and did what he intended to do from the start,” Eckert said.

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Sierra Club spokesmen echoed those sentiments.

“It is a very serious problem when a member of the Administration makes a promise to the people of a state and then begins . . . weaseling out of it,” Garland said. “It hints of an impending violation of trust between the executive branch and the Congress, with the citizens of the California coast as the pawns in this political maneuvering.”

Garland also added to the chorus of voices charging that Hodel scuttled the agreement because of pressure from the oil industry.

“Mr. Hodel was put under great strain by the oil companies on this,” Garland said. “There’s no question the influence was there.”

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