House Panel Revives Ban on Offshore Drilling

Times Staff Writers

A House panel voted Wednesday to revive a ban on new oil and gas exploration off the California coastline after legislators broke off talks with the Interior Department over a limited drilling plan and both sides traded charges of bad faith in negotiations.

Despite the voice-vote approval in the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, the actual drilling showdown should take place next Thursday when the moratorium question goes before the full Appropriations Committee, which last year defeated it by a single vote.

"We've moved from negotiations to a fight," said California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), a staunch drilling foe who predicted that next week's battle again will be close.

The development highlights another chapter in the contentious, continuing saga of the Reagan Administration's long and so far futile attempt to exploit energy resources buried beneath the sea off the California coast.

A large, bipartisan contingent of California lawmakers for years has blocked wide-open drilling because they claim it would imperil the state's ecologically delicate Pacific shoreline. But Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel contends that drilling is needed to meet the country's future energy needs and poses no threat to the environment.

The two sides agreed on a limited drilling scheme last year, but were forced to renew talks in January after Hodel reneged on the original deal. The new discussions never came close to succeeding.

California Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), who chaired the 18-member panel of Senate and House members that bargained with Hodel, said Interior rejected an offer from the lawmakers to open for leasing 173 tracts--all at least 15 miles from the coastline--considered to be of prime interest to oil companies. Instead, Panetta said, department negotiators insisted on a formula that would have allowed development of 500 offshore tracts, many within three miles of shore.

Panetta said the bargainers were close to arranging a temporary truce that would have allowed negotiations to continue. The arrangement fell apart, he said, when Interior officials agreed to delay planned lease sales off Southern California until 1989 but refused to push back planned 1988 sales off the northern coast by a year.

"We are not prepared to sell out one part of the coast for another," said Panetta, who accused the Administration of trying to undermine unity among drilling foes by offering a better deal to part of the state.

But Hodel, in a written statement, blamed the California contingent for the collapse of talks and accused lawmakers of putting "crass political considerations ahead of the nation's well being."

Deferring both northern and southern lease sales until 1989 would "mean that the sale could be used as a political football through the (1988) election year," he charged. "We will not put politics before what is right."

Assistant Interior Secretary Steve Griles, the department's negotiator in the meetings, also dismissed the proposed moratorium as a "political statement" that would have little practical effect, if adopted. It would be attached to the Interior Department's fiscal 1987 appropriation bill and, as such, would expire with the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 1987. Pre-lease work for the planned 1988 sale could still proceed even with the moratorium in place, he contended.

Pushed Back a Year

Panetta, however, disagreed and said that a moratorium would push Interior's entire leasing schedule back effectively at least one year.

Griles predicted the Appropriations panel would reject a new moratorium, but said there is no reason to revive negotiations. "I'm sorry they walked away," he said of the drilling foes.

California Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, one of the legislative negotiators, said that the two sides were "literally miles apart" when talks ended. He acknowledged that a moratorium revival would serve mainly as a "delaying action" designed to give drilling opponents more leverage in their fight with the Interior Department.

The American Petroleum Institute attacked Wednesday's subcommittee action as a "vote against America's future energy security and economic well being." The industry lobby said in a statement that waters off California show "great promise" for oil and natural gas development and that closing them to exploration would only increase "the likelihood that the U.S. will become even more dependent on insecure foreign sources in just a few years."

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