After years of waging the legislative equivalent of guerrilla warfare against offshore oil drilling, members of California's congressional delegation Tuesday opened discussions with the Administration in an effort to win a permanent exemption for the state from future drilling plans.
The meeting marks a temporary truce between the two forces, reflecting the drilling opponents' hopes that President Bush might agree to a negotiated settlement.
But the collegial mood of the session was marked by lingering hostility as the anti-drilling forces sternly warned that they will resume their fight unless the President acquiesces to their demands.
"I think I can express my recommendation in two words," Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) told the White House task force. "Forget it."
The task force, headed by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., was appointed early this year by President Bush to review the pro-drilling course established by the Ronald Reagan Administration and to consider the environmental concerns raised by critics of that policy.
Because its members represent federal agencies that favored Reagan's plans, critics have charged that the panel is predisposed to submit a pro-drilling recommendation.
Lujan sought in the hourlong meeting Tuesday to dispel such fears, assuring the congressional group that the panel had not been instructed "as to how we should come out."
"We can rule 'no drilling' or we can rule 'drill every square inch,' " Lujan said.
Most of the delegation joined in a chorus of praise for the Bush Administration's willingness to take a fresh look at the dispute, in which California congressmen repeatedly have resorted to behind-the-scenes parliamentary tactics to block offshore drilling plans.
But some made clear their continuing skepticism about the task force's intentions, and urged the panel to reject the outlook of the last administration.
"If you don't come into this room--and to Congress, and to the country--with a commitment to change in how you approach these issues," warned Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), "then you're not going to get anywhere."
"It is the impression of many of us that what is proceeding is a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. That simply will not do," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo).
Meanwhile Tuesday, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors sounded a similar note of criticism, voting 5 to 0 to discourage the task force from conducting a planned public meeting in Eureka on offshore drilling.
A resolution approved by the board dismissed the session as a "public relations ploy," noting that the Interior Department--which provides staff members for the task force--has made clear its support of offshore oil development.
Interior Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said the panel will seek another venue for its Northern California session.
The "workshops"--scheduled also for San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Sacramento--are designed, like the Capitol Hill session, to signal the drilling task force's commitment to open discussion of the issue.
In addition to the Interior Department, the drilling task force is composed of representatives from the departments of Interior and Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Academy of Sciences is to provide scientific research.
The panel's mandate is to consider plans for drilling off Northern and Southern California and in another region off Florida's Gulf Coast, and excludes Lease Sale 119 off the Central California coast. Lujan said Tuesday, however, that he expects the task force findings to be "applicable to the other areas."
While hailing the task force's open approach, Panetta and others predicted that the panel would be confronted by Californians' deep concerns about the environmental sensitivity of the state's coastline.
"You will hear in emphatic terms about the need that Californians feel for protection that will be adequate," said Republican Sen. Pete Wilson.
Some Support Drilling
A small minority of the delegation sounded markedly different views, voicing emphatic support for continued offshore drilling.
"This nation is moving back toward a dependence on foreign oil," warned Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), who challenged drilling opponents to put the matter to a full vote of the House of Representatives.
Another drilling advocate, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), warned the Administration against being swayed by anti-oil sentiment provoked by the recent oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
"A coalition of irresponsible environmentalists and local property owners are effectively blocking this valuable energy source for America," he said.