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Court Gives West Partial Victory on Offshore Drilling

Times Staff Writer

Federal officials must study the impact that offshore oil exploration could have on whales, salmon and other migratory marine species before allowing increased drilling off the California coast, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled here Friday.

The decision is a partial victory for California, several other states and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which went to court last year in an effort to block the government’s controversial five-year offshore leasing program. It will not immediately block any leasing plans but will provide the incoming Administration of President-elect George Bush with an opportunity to reassess the controversial and aggressive drilling program developed by the Reagan Administration under Interior Secretaries James G. Watt and Donald P. Hodel. During the fall presidential campaign, Bush pledged that he will order the Interior Department to reassess the program.

Although the Administration lost on the migratory species issue, the court rejected several other challenges to the drilling program, including an argument that federal officials had failed to consult adequately with California congressmen and Gov. George Deukmejian before deciding what offshore tracts to lease. That mixed decision left both Interior Department officials and environmentalists claiming victory in what was the third round of court challenges over the long-stalled leasing program.

“There’s a real significant victory here,” said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney James Thornton. Bush, he said, will now have an opportunity to draft a “kinder, gentler” leasing program.

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A senior Interior Department official, however, speaking on condition that he not be identified, called the ruling only a “minor setback” and predicted that the department could complete the new analysis in about eight months.

California Deputy Atty. Gen. Mary Gray Holt said she is “gratified” by the decision, saying that, for the first time, the Interior Department will be compelled to produce a “valid cumulative impact study of resources important to the state of California, including migrating marine mammals, salmon and birds.”

While federal officials tried to assess the risk that whales and other migratory creatures would face in each individual oil lease area, they failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act by making only a cursory attempt to figure out the cumulative effect of traveling through numerous drilling areas, Appeals Court Judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kenneth M. Starr and David Sentelle concluded.

The five-year leasing program, which was the centerpiece of the Administration’s plans to reduce dependency on foreign oil by increasing domestic production, has been mired in controversy since it was announced in 1980. After court challenges that year and again in 1982, Congress imposed a series of moratoriums, banning new lease sales off the coast of California and in sensitive fisheries areas in the North Atlantic. Hodel announced the most recent version of the program in 1987, prompting the current lawsuit.

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Because the migratory-species issue affects only West Coast sections of the leasing program, the court’s ruling would appear to remove the legal barriers to leasing in the North Atlantic--off the coast of Massachusetts--and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Continue Moratorium

In the Pacific, however, Congress has continued to declare a moratorium on leasing along the Northern California coast, and lease sales off Southern California were postponed this fall after Bush urged a complete review of the program. The first new lease sale is now scheduled for December, 1989, when tracts off the North Slope of Alaska are scheduled to be auctioned.

Under the court’s ruling, the government may go ahead and auction off any leases covered by the program. But an analysis of the impact on migratory species would have to be finished before oil companies begin “any actual development” of the lease tracts, the court ruled. In practice, government lawyers said, oil companies will be able to bid on tracts that they may be interested in and then would be able to get their money back if the government decides that drilling would have an unacceptable impact on marine creatures.

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The Interior Department’s own studies show that millions of barrels of oil and grease-tainted waste water and sediment will be discharged from drilling platforms as a matter of routine, environmentalists and state officials argued to the court. And even small amounts of oil may clog the filaments that some whale species use in feeding, Holt said.

Currently, no drilling platforms exist along vast areas of the 10,000-mile round trip that gray whales take each year from Baja California to Alaska and back. The proposed drilling program could add scores of new platforms and more than 1,000 new wells from Central California to Alaska, potentially exposing the whales to toxic pollutants over thousands of miles of their journey, the state argued to the court.

Times staff writer Myron Levin contributed to this story from Los Angeles.


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