Congress Fails to Halt Plan to Expand Offshore Oil Development

Times Staff Writer

Congress let pass Friday's deadline for blocking an Interior Department plan to vastly expand offshore oil development, but a coalition of coastal senators vowed to restrain the plan later unless extensive changes are made.

Six senators representing California, Florida and Massachusetts denounced the latest draft of the five-year leasing blueprint, which is scheduled to take effect next month.

In a joint letter, the lawmakers asked Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations interior subcommittee, to help develop legislation that would protect marine life and coastal air quality allegedly threatened by drilling and production in the plan.

Wants to 'Bridle' Hodel

Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), appearing at a news conference with Sens. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), said that if changes are not made by Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel, efforts must be made to "bridle" him.

"California has severe air pollution problems that are being exacerbated by offshore oil activity, not to mention the perennial problem of tanker spills," Wilson said.

He criticized Hodel for "reneging" on an agreement with California members of Congress last year that would have removed numerous environmentally sensitive tracts from proposed leasing areas.

Reefs, Lobsters, Crabs

The Florida senators cited threats in the Interior plan to coral reefs, spiny lobsters and stone crabs off the Florida Keys and shellfish near Apalachicola. They charged that local groups had been inadequately consulted.

"Concerns about the nation's excessive dependence on foreign oil are legitimate but do not justify endangering vital natural resources off Florida and other states," Chiles said.

Also joining in the letter were Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Changes Allowed

Congress had 60 days, ending Friday, to disapprove the plan before it goes into effect. Hodel still can make changes, though, and Congress can pass legislation to halt or alter the plan at any stage of the leasing process.

Wilson and Chiles said that, as a holding move, if necessary, they favor cutting off money to implement the plan. Graham suggested legislation to exclude specific areas from development and to require the Interior Department to consider impacts on tourism and fishing when drawing up leasing plans.

Wilson denied that Congress' failure to disapprove the pending plan before Friday's deadline was a sign of weakness for opponents. He contended that there is "gathering momentum" in Congress to support changes, as increasing numbers of members realize that California is not the only coastal state with strong concerns.

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