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New Coastal Protections

When a California congressman accused the Department of the Interior of lackadaisical enforcement of offshore oil drilling regulations, an Interior spokesman responded: “Our goal is to persuade the American public that offshore drilling is safe and environmentally sound. We can’t do that if people think the law is laxly enforced.”

But what is the public to think when Interior has discovered more than 16,000 violations of regulations on offshore oil rigs since 1983 and declined to assess any civil penalties against the rig operators? Granted, as Interior officials argued, many of the violations probably were minor infractions, perhaps even corrected on the spot. And as an official said, the statistics revealed by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) did not indicate that each rig visit involved as many as 150 separate components. Still, infractions were discovered in three out of 10 visits, including a total of 1,300 on rigs off the California coast.

The excuse for not assessing penalties was a court decision in Louisiana in 1983 that said the regulations did not give the oil companies enough time to take corrective action. The Interior Department could have quickly revised the regulations to fit the ruling. But, as Miller put it, “the Interior Department simply chose to do nothing.”

The new secretary, Manual Lujan Jr., finally has ordered new rules to be drafted. That alone will not give the pubic great confidence in how diligent the department is in enforcing the rules, or in fact, in the general safety of offshore drilling and production. Indeed, there has been no major spill since the Union Oil blowout near Santa Barbara 20 years ago. But the industry also had boasted of the safety of its record in shipping Alaskan oil to the Lower 48, until the Exxon Valdez accident in March.

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The Interior spokesman said that the department’s goal is to persuade people that drilling is safe and sound. But that is not what it should be and the comment is indicative of the department’s ill-guided zeal to promote offshore oil drilling wherever possible. The goal should be to demonstrate that drilling is safe and sound, and refuse to consider drilling where there is any doubt, or where the environmental risk outweighs the prospects for oil recovery.

Certainly Congress is not yet convinced of the need to rush ahead with offshore production. The full House has approved creation of the 400-square-mile Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Point Reyes north of San Francisco to protect the area, described as the underwater equivalent of Yosemite or Yellowstone, from drilling and other activities. And on Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee voted for a new one-year moratorium on offshore oil leasing along the California coast and in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

The industry argues that it is foolish to use recent tanker spills as an excuse to delay more offshore exploration. That will only result in the importation of more foreign oil and, therefore, the risk of more tanker accidents, oil executives said. But oil developed in many of the proposed new lease sales, increasingly distant from the shore, would be transported to refineries by tanker.

Coincidentally on Thursday, President Bush’s Offshore Continental Shelf Task Force conducted more hearings in Eureka, on California’s scenic North Coast where area residents are absolutely committed to preventing offshore leasing. The task force should give considerable weight to their comments because the limited supplies of oil estimated to be found off the North Coast do not justify the risk of drilling in that area.

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In fact, the task force should not recommend any additional offshore oil leasing until the Administration has drafted a new energy policy, a process that is under way. Such a policy must honestly balance realistic expectations of offshore production against other available energy sources in the next 10 to 20 years, including new fuels being mandated under new air quality regulations. Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior should become less of a promoter and marketeer of offshore oil and more of a protector of the environment. At the very least, the department should put some teeth into enforcement of the rules it already has.


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