Hodel Tried to Reverse Image Left by James Watt : Honeymoon’s Over for Official in the Hot Seat

Times Staff Writer

For Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel, who sees himself as a consensus builder open to outside views, the honeymoon in office is over.

Since taking over the Interior Department last February, Hodel and his staff have worked to bring into the governmental process groups excluded by one of his predecessors, the controversial James G. Watt.

Staff members visited the offices of environmentalists and returned their phone calls. The secretary himself cultivated an image as an outdoorsman, donning blue jeans and black cowboy boots, rafting in the Grand Canyon, rappelling at Yosemite National Park and easing tensions at public hearings in California with his quips.

Moreover, until he began backing away from a compromise on California offshore oil leasing over the last month, his efforts had largely paid off.

Hodel was hailed as someone environmentalists could talk to--although philosophically his views differ little from Watt’s. He also was viewed as someone who could push President Reagan’s agenda because, unlike Watt, he did not scare opponents of Administration policies into recalcitrance.


The collapse of the accord with the California congressional delegation has changed all that. Members of Congress and environmentalists who had praised Hodel weeks earlier denounced him Tuesday as a double-crosser and declared him more dangerous than Watt.

Even representatives of the oil industry, who had urged Hodel to back out of the compromise, were disconcerted.

Faces Lack of Trust

“Here seems to be a guy who made the agreement without proper thought in the first place and then flip-flops,” one industry official said. “I don’t believe industry will ever trust Don Hodel again.”

Some members of Congress speculated that Hodel never intended to honor the preliminary agreement and instead used the accord as a negotiating trick to prevent renewal of a Congressional moratorium on drilling off California. Most, however, said it appeared that he caved in under pressure from the oil industry and entered into the agreement naively.

“It’s a very, very unpleasant experience to get on the wrong side of your friends,” said one House aide who asked not to be identified. “I don’t think the agreement was quite as preliminary as Hodel now says it was, but it wasn’t as solid as the Californians are saying, either.”

Hodel said he simply did not realize how little oil and gas would be obtained under the preliminary agreement, which he accepted under the pressure of another moratorium on leasing off California.

Sees His Mistake

His mistakes, he said, were to allow the pact to be called an “agreement” and to publicly rule out several environmentally sensitive areas for drilling. “I think I lost some of the negotiating room by doing that,” Hodel said Tuesday.

The fallout from the collapsed accord was immediate.

“There was a period of getting to know Don Hodel, learning and listening to him,” said Andrew Palmer, director of the Environmental Policy Institute, a Washington-based environmental lobbying group.

“But now we will have to remember that what he says he can do and will do is not, in fact, what will happen,” Palmer said. “I’m sorry it’s come to this. This looks like a watershed point for the environmentalists and the Interior Department.”

Bob Hattoy, the Sierra Club’s Southern California representative, charged that Hodel may be “more dangerous than Mr. Watt because Hodel is doing all of this in a likable, charming, affable way. Mr. Watt became the issue himself.”

Others Puzzled

Others said they were puzzled by Hodel’s handling of the negotiations.

“Here’s a guy that the development types respected,” an oil industry official said. “I don’t mean that he gave us everything, but he is a very cool customer. He is very witty. . . . He is an attractive man in a city with rather bland characters. You have to respect his style.”

He continued: “And then came this agreement, and he aggravated and angered everyone. The big mystery is why he entered into the agreement in the first place. Why wouldn’t he have realized there would be an uproar?”

Permanently Eroded

But contrary to some industry officials who say their trust in Hodel has been permanently eroded, Phillip Clark, vice president of the National Ocean Industries Assn., said: “I don’t think he’ll do it again and I’m willing to put my trust back in Hodel. And I hope the companies will, too.”

Hodel, meanwhile, said he would return to the negotiating table--probably with a group that includes California legislators who favor offshore development--despite a renewed threat Tuesday of a moratorium.

He declined to specify which areas he wants to explore off the coast, saying that it is still too preliminary. “It really won’t be productive until somebody decides to sit down with me,” he said with a weary smile.

Practiced Law

Hodel, 50, was born in Portland, Ore., and is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Oregon School of Law. He practiced law before joining the Bonneville Power Administration, where he was administrator from 1972 to 1977.

Active in Republican politics, he also served as chairman of the party’s Oregon commitee. Hodel was running his own energy consulting firm, Hodel Associates & Co., when Watt chose him as undersecretary of the Department of the Interior in 1981. He was named energy secretary in 1982 and returned to the Interior Department after former Secretary William P. Clark resigned.