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Lujan, Watkins Assail Push for 1-Year Ban on Offshore Drilling

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Two Cabinet members argued the Bush Administration’s case for offshore oil drilling before a meeting of 16 Western governors Tuesday, contending that it is the only way America can become energy self-sufficient.

Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. and Energy Secretary James D. Watkins both criticized the strong push in Congress for a one-year moratorium on offshore drilling along most of the U.S. coastline.

Each secretary pointed out that it was not offshore oil rigs but tankers that caused the recent rash of oil spills, generating a wave of anti-drilling sentiment in Congress.

Lujan, much of whose speech to the governors was reported in Tuesday’s Times, advocated forcing shipping companies to build “super ports” roughly five miles offshore to unload their oil cargoes. The oil would then be transported to land through pipelines.

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“While tankers continue to spill oil into our waters and offshore drilling continues to provide a record of environmentally sound production, why are we attacking offshore drilling and letting the tankers nestle into our harbors?” he asked.

Lujan also said radar should be used to direct port traffic, much as control towers direct airplanes around airports.

“I don’t want to leave the impression with all of you that we’re saying we’re going to drill come hell or high water,” Lujan told the Western governors, gathered in Long Beach for their annual conference. “We’re saying we would like to drill in areas where we can do it in an environmentally sound manner.”

There will be no drilling at all until at least October, 1990, if the Senate follows the House’s lead and votes to put 84 million acres of the nation’s outer continental shelf--including the entire California coast--temporarily off limits to oil companies.

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“Our experience has been that when you declare a moratorium in a temporary way it becomes permanent very quickly,” Watkins lamented. “I am very worried.”

Watkins reported that the United States is now importing nearly 50% of its oil. “That’s a very serious situation. We don’t know what it bodes for the future,” he said, warning of another potential Arab oil boycott.

“There’ll be a great concern one day when we turn around again and find ourselves asking, ‘Where have we gone wrong?’ ”

A native Californian, Watkins said he realizes how “very sensitive” offshore drilling is in this state. Reminiscing about growing up here, the 62-year-old Cabinet secretary recalled, “I used to ride my bicycle down from Pasadena to Long Beach and swim in the surf. . . .

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“It was beautiful. We walked on the beach and got oil on our feet and we thought that was good because it was helpful to the economy of the state of California.”

The governors, winding up their two-day meeting, had little reaction to the Cabinet secretaries’ pitch for offshore oil operations.

Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, a Democrat and former transportation secretary in the Jimmy Carter Administration, complained that his state was not included with California in an offshore leasing moratorium during the heat of last year’s presidential campaign. He asserted that the Bush Administration does not seem to be interested in smaller Oregon’s environmental concerns.

‘Worthy of Study’

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Republican Gov. George Deukmejian reiterated his opposition to an offshore oil moratorium, noting that production of natural gas is also at stake. “We’ve had several one-year moratoriums. What (critics) really want,” he continued “is a total ban. Let’s not forget that.”

Deukmejian, chairman of the conference he is hosting in his hometown, said Lujan’s proposal for offshore ports is “worthy of study.”

Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper, a Democrat, denounced the cleanup efforts of the federal government and Exxon Corp. after the disastrous Valdez oil spill. He branded the nation’s oil cleanup strategy as “woefully insufficient” and offered several suggestions, including placing the Coast Guard in charge, requiring the spillers to pay the entire bill and developing a small fleet of ships that can skim leaked oil off the sea.

Robert Sulnick, executive director of the American Oceans Campaign, an environmental group based in California and in Washington, called Lujan’s offshore drilling position misguided.

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“What the country needs is an alternative energy program based on conservation or renewable fuels,” he said. “What the country does not need is an oil policy that uses American oil first, Middle East oil last and creates a certainity of oil spills like we witnessed in Alaska, Rhode Island and Texas in the last several months.”

The governors wound up their conference by adopting a thick packet of resolutions. One by Cowper embodied most of his recommendations for developing an oil cleanup strategy.

Another Cowper resolution urged the Bush Administration to return the Soviet Union to “most favored nation” status if Moscow continues to relax restrictions on Jewish emigration.

The governors also adopted a Deukmejian resolution urging the Western states to consolidate some of their costly, duplicative foreign trade efforts and team up on new ones.

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Times staff writer Larry Stammer contributed to this article.


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