Cities, Counties Join Forces to Fight Industry Lawsuit on Offshore Drilling

Times Staff Writer

Fearing the demise of home rule and environmental quality, officials from San Diego, Oceanside and other local governments pledged Wednesday to join forces to fight a major oil industry lawsuit that seeks to overturn restrictions imposed by 13 cities and counties on oil development off the California coast.

The Western Oil and Gas Assn., whose members include major oil companies, and The National Ocean Industries Assn. filed the suit Aug. 7 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Local ordinances such as those passed in San Diego and Oceanside last November, the industry said, would have the effect of thwarting oil and gas development in federal waters by placing severe restrictions and prohibitions on onshore support facilities such as pipelines, storage tanks, and processing plants.


In fact, the ordinances passed by San Diego and Oceanside voters prohibit any city employee from cooperating with the oil industry in any way.

The industry trade association claims that the local ordinances violate supremacy of the federal government embodied in the U.S. Constitution and threaten the nation’s energy security.

At a press conference here, city officials said lawyers representing a number of the 13 local governments opened discussions Monday in San Luis Obispo aimed at coordinating a legal defense.

“We’re going to develop a unified response to an outrageous lawsuit that challenges the basic constitutional right of our local communities to decide for themselves the key issues that concern them, both environmentally and economically,” Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton said.

“The underlying point,” added San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding, “is we own the beachhead and we’re going to fight ‘em off.”

A coordinated response is dependent, however, on approval by each of the boards of supervisors and city councils.


The 13 local governments are the counties of Monterey, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Sonoma, and the city and county of San Francisco, as well as the cities of Monterey, Morro Bay, Oceanside, San Diego, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz.

The press conference here spotlighted another in a series of controversies that have engulfed oil and gas development off the California coast for years.

“I think this is a major escalation in the battle by local officials to block development of oil on the outer continental shelf,” Western Oil spokesman Craig Hume said.

“What makes this one special is the fact that local governments along the coast of California have attempted to erect a wall which, in effect, would block development of offshore oil,” Hume said.

At the time Western Oil and Gas Assn. filed the suit, its executive director, Douglas Henderson, assailed the local ordinances as unconstitutional. “Domestic oil,” he said, “is a vital national resource that must be developed in the public interest to reduce growing U.S. dependence on imported oil from the Persian Gulf and other areas of the world.”

But Patton took issue with the association’s contention that the nation’s energy security is at issue.


“That’s an old charge and it’s an erroneous one. What’s really going on is the overwhelming greed of the oil companies,” Patton charged.

“The fact is that the oil companies want to get control of potential oil lands now when the price is low and hold those lands in reserve and later pump out the oil and sell it back to the people they’re buying it from, the citizens of the United States, at inflated prices at the gas pump.”

The stakes are high. Last March the Department of Energy estimated that 4 billion barrels of recoverable undiscovered oil and more than 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie off the California coast.

Currently, 72,000 barrels of crude and 158,994 million cubic feet of natural gas are pumped daily from federally controlled waters off California. Daily production from new projects now under way will range from 300,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil and upwards of 700,000 million cubic feet of natural gas.

Thus California offshore oil and gas development has figured prominently in the Reagan Administration’s push to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

San Diego City Councilman Ed Struiksma, who authored the ordinance approved by voters there last November, said Wednesday: “There are a number of things that we value as San Diegans . . . and we felt they were under attack by the oil industry.


“I want you to understand clearly that the city of San Diego feels threatened. . . . We feel there are basic fundamental principles in question here.”

Struiksma and Golding said oil development off San Diego would increase air pollution and threaten oil spills and collisions.

The oil industry said cities and counties are attempting to impose through local ordinances what opponents failed to win in Congress--a continuation of a moratorium on offshore development and the overturning of Hodel’s new five-year offshore oil plan. The five-year congressional moratorium ended last fall.

Hodel’s new five-year plan became final last July after Congress failed to veto it. Under the plan, however, lease sales off the California coast will be delayed until February, 1989. But Interior is proceeding with pre-lease activities for sales off the Southern California coast between the Mexican border and the Monterey-San Luis Obispo County line, as well as in federal waters off Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

No hearing date has been set and the 13 cities and counties have not filed a response.

The seven local governments represented at Wednesday’s press conference were the cities of San Diego, Santa Cruz and Monterey; the counties of San Diego, Santa Cruz and San Mateo, and the city and county of San Francisco.