Lost at Sea

Like the legendary ghost ships of yore, the Gail has been circling aimlessly at sea off the Santa Barbara-Ventura coast in search of a port. Gail is not a graceful sloop or square-rigger, but a 60-story oil-drilling platform built in Japan for Chevron and being hauled around on its side by two giant tugs at a reputed cost of $200,000 a day. Gail does have a port of sorts--a plot of ocean floor leased by Chevron from the federal government for offshore oil production in 1968.

But Gail was put into its Flying-Dutchman limbo by the California Coastal Commission while the agency decided under what conditions Chevron should be allowed to sink the rig onto the ocean floor and begin drilling for oil in a field nine miles off Port Hueneme.

This is a particularly sensitive site, six miles from the Channel Islands National Park and half a mile outside a federal marine sanctuary. Anacapa Island is the only permanent nesting colony of the endangered California brown pelican. The rig would adjoin a busy shipping channel with the potential of accidents. The state is concerned about air pollution blown onshore by prevailing winds.

The commission deadlocked 6 to 6 in July on a motion to allow the drilling under unprecedented restrictions. Chevron agreed to even stricter controls in hopes of winning a favorable vote this week. But the commission rejected the project on Tuesday after some members who had supported Chevron voted no. Clearly, other oil companies feared the precedent-setting restrictions contained in the Gail decision, and worked to persuade friendly commission members to change their position.


This tactic would allow apparent defeat to become victory for the oil companies. Chevron has appealed the decision to U.S. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, who can overrule the Coastal Commission if he finds the oil project to be in the national interest. In concert with the Administration’s zest for drilling more of the California outer continental shelf, Baldrige has issued similar rulings in the past. Such a finding might allow Chevron to proceed without the safeguards sought by the state.

The nation needs more domestic oil. The California coastline must be protected. The commission’s proposal would have achieved those goals. Chevron, to its considerable credit, was willing to meet unprecedented controls on its drilling. If Baldrige must approve the drilling of wells from Platform Gail, he should also impose restrictions of the sort proposed by the commission. To this end, perhaps Gov. George Deukmejian could be of some influence.

Unless these offshore-oil issues can be accommodated with sensitivity on the part of the Reagan Administration to California’s concerns, Platform Gail and her sister rigs may be doomed to aimlessly sail the stormy seas of lawsuits and court fights for years to come. Either that or drilling might proceed without the safeguards that most California leaders consider to be essential.