California coastal congressmen still were far from an agreement with the Interior Department Wednesday as they emerged from talks over limiting oil drilling off the state's shoreline, but the two sides pledged to make one more effort before the congressmen renew their push for a full-scale drilling moratorium.
Although negotiators said that they are pledged to secrecy about the closed-door sessions, Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey) said the congressmen have offered to make 173 new offshore tracts available for drilling, including zones off Orange County, the Santa Monica Bay area, and Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
The proposal would double the number of tracts now open for oil exploration.
Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) described the plan as "a clear bottom-line proposal. . . . We've gone as far as we can go."
Debate Over Numbers
By comparison, several congressional sources said, the Interior Department wants to offer 670 tracts for lease, down from its initial request for 756 that had been identified by the oil industry as the most promising prospects.
The department reportedly has offered to lease no tracts within six miles of shore, while the congressmen are said to insist upon "buffer zones" of as much as 28 miles around Santa Monica Bay and a minimum of 15 miles in areas believed less environmentally sensitive. Federal waters begin three miles from shore.
Richard Charter, a Washington lobbyist for California local governments, said Wednesday night that the new proposal includes roughly the same number of Orange County tracts--approximately six--but that it affords a greater degree of coastal protection than last year's agreement because the proposed tracts are farther from shore.
"At no point does the buffer line come closer than 12 miles to shore," said Charter, who was briefed after Wednesday's session.
Laguna Beach City Councilman Robert F. Gentry called Wednesday's meeting "a terrific first step."
"I applaud the California delegation for their spirit of negotiations. We will be interested to see if (Interior Secretary Donald P.) Hodel's department responds with the same spirit of negotiation and cooperation. However, for those of us in Orange County, we continue to feel that long-term protection must be included for the tracts between the beach and Catalina Island."
Jeffrey Leitch, the director of a local citizens group called Save Our Shores, agreed.
"I think their intention to offer further protection for Orange County is great, but 12 miles is still too close for comfort," he said. "Our group would like to see another 12 miles for our expressed satisfaction."
Another meeting in Washington is scheduled for Tuesday, when the two sides will consider a compromise being drafted by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the ranking Republican on the House appropriations interior subcommittee.
The Interior Department says time is running out for it to begin laying the groundwork for its five-year plan for 42 oil and gas lease sales off the U.S. coasts. Meanwhile, California congressmen are preparing for a hearing next week in which the House Interior appropriations subcommittee will consider renewing a drilling ban abandoned last year.
Bob Hattoy, a Sierra Club lobbyist for Southern California, said environmental groups fear that the Interior Department will use the ongoing negotiations as "a tool to stall a vote on a moratorium."
The bitter dispute began last year when Interior Secretary Hodel and the congressmen agreed in July on a plan to limit development to 150 tracts. Six of those were in Orange County, mainly Newport and Laguna Beach. But Hodel backed away from the proposal in September, citing oil company complaints that the new tracts would yield relatively little oil.
The previous drilling moratorium, imposed by Congress in late 1981, expired in December, after which an 18-member congressional panel was established to negotiate with Interior Department officials. There have been more than a dozen sessions over the past four months, but the two sides appear to have come no closer to an agreement.
"I've never been terribly optimistic. The differences are so great," said Sen. James A. McClure (R-Ida.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), who is from an inland district and is arguing in the negotiations for more vigorous oil exploration off California, said that the state's coastal congressmen are likely to be outvoted when the issue goes before the House.
However, Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) insisted that the coastal lawmakers have "gotten the message" to McClure and other negotiators from outside California, who "understand the terrible bind we are in."
The next sale of tracts off California is scheduled for early 1988 and will include areas off Mendocino and Humboldt counties. A second offering that year will include tracts off Southern California.
Times staff writer Heidi Evans contributed to this story from Orange County.