Half an Offshore Loaf

The battle over drilling California's offshore regions for oil has been rejoined with little sign of any reconciliation or easing of emotions. Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel issued his new proposed five-year plan for leasing the California coast on an unfortunate take-it-or-leave-it-basis. California congressional leaders immediately denounced it as a declaration of war on the California coastline.

Hodel has made some concessions that may contribute something to an ultimate agreement on what coastal areas might be drilled without undue risk to California's coastal environment. They were not significant enough to appease Hodel's California critics, and he knew that when he drafted the plan.

But Hodel agreed to put off limits some of the near-shore areas between Los Angeles and San Diego that were the center of such fury two years ago. This was done in part by creating a six-mile coastal buffer where drilling would not be allowed. But this also was a bit of sleight-of-hand. Since the first three miles offshore are within state jurisdiction, it really is a three-mile buffer.

The secretary emphasized that he proposed leasing only 13% of the region included in a congressional moratorium that has expired. No big deal there, though. That 13% just happens to be the focus of controversy: the region most sought by the oil companies, and the region of greatest concern to environmentalists.

It should also be noted that this is just the beginning of the planning process. No lease could be granted until after a new President, and presumably a new secretary of Interior, has taken office in early 1989. Even before then, more areas most likely would be deleted, Hodel said.

As contentious and frustrating as the outer continental-shelf negotiations have been in the past six years, something has been accomplished. The parameters have been narrowed. It is possible now to identify certain lease tracts that are of interest to the oil industry and where leasing is acceptable to the California delegation. There are certain areas of little or no interest to industry that are of major concern to environmentalists.

Further negotiation is possible if the overlapping areas of intractable dispute are put aside for now. Let the congressional delegation fashion a bill, with Administration support, that provides environmental protection for the most sensitive areas that are of minimal interest to the oil industry. Let the leasing plan proceed for the limited regions of interest to the industry where there are no serious environmental objections.

Two things must happen in order for this process to work: The oil industry must abandon its all-or-nothing approach, which cannot succeed in the face of the threatened lawsuits and united congressional, state and local opposition. And the negotiations must be moved to some forum that minimizes the distrust and animosity that now exist between Hodel and California members of Congress.

The nation needs oil, but the protection of the California coast also is in the national interest.

The oil companies would be prudent in taking what they can get now. The more adamant they are in demanding everything, the more likely they are to get nothing.

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