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Heavy Limits Put on Offshore Pre-Leasing Activities

Times Staff Writer

House and Senate conferees, bitterly divided over future oil drilling off the California coast, compromised Thursday by placing heavy restriction on pre-leasing activities on the state’s outer continental shelf until at least next June.

The action, taken as Congress worked toward completion of an $11-billion Interior Department appropriations bill for the 1990 fiscal year, basically upholds the vigorous anti-drilling provisions adopted by House members angered by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The agreement will prohibit the release of draft environmental impact statements for vast lease areas until five months after completion of a report by a presidential task force now reviewing the impact of drilling on the shelf.

The agreement will effectively hold up pre-leasing activities for the first time. Although drilling off the California coast has been banned by temporary moratoriums since 1981, the government has been able to engage in preparatory work such as drafting impact statements.

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Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) warned that the adamant opposition of California congressmen to offshore drilling had been allowed to supersede the national interest.

Under mounting pressure from environmentalists, President Bush early this year put ambitious drilling plans of the Ronald Reagan Administration in abeyance. Bush ordered a Cabinet-level task force to assess the impact of drilling on proposed Lease Sale 95 off Southern California and Lease Sale 91 off the state’s northern coast.

An aroused House went further, writing language into its Interior Department appropriations bill suspending pre-leasing activity and extending the moratorium to the vast Lease Sale 119 off Central California.

The measure imposed similar bans on areas off Alaska, Florida, and six mid-Atlantic states, but the focus of the battle was the coast of California.

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The Senate version of the appropriations bill imposed no restraints on pre-leasing activities.

In the conference committee, pro-drilling senators led by Johnston and Sen. James A. McClure (R-Ida.) succeeded only in shortening the House moratorium from Oct. 1, 1990, to five months after the presidential task force issues its report, which is due Jan. 1.

The agreement was struck after California Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) threatened to send the dispute back to the full House and Senate unresolved.

Lowery, who led the fight for the House version, at first insisted on keeping the moratorium in place for eight months. But he compromised on the shorter five-month moratorium after the senators agreed to tie it to release of the presidential task force report.

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At least five months were necessary, Lowery said, to provide enough time to digest the task force’s findings.

The chief impact of the compromise will be to further delay pre-leasing preparations for Lease Sale 95 off the Southern California coast. A draft environmental impact statement, the fourth of 11 steps leading to lease sales, was nearly complete when the presidential review was ordered.

In the tracts off Northern and Central California, pre-leasing activities leading up to release of a draft environmental impact statement, including area identification, may proceed. But the measure explicitly prohibits use of explosives or drilling as part of the area identification process.

Claiming that the moratorium resulted from “oil hysteria abroad in the land,” Johnston said that pro-drilling forces had taken the position that they would allow drilling foes to simply “declare victory” this year but that they had instead tried for a “110% victory.”

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At the outset, Lowery offered a compromise of simply allowing pre-leasing preparation to continue up to the preparation of draft environmental impact statements, with no specified time restraint, but the offer was rejected.

When debate over the length of the moratorium appeared about to wreck any chance of a compromise, Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), the House conference chairman, alluded to the strong anti-drilling sentiment in California.

Yates warned the senators that Lowery was already offering more than some of his California colleagues would have wished. He “has to deal with a group of guys who probably don’t want him to do what he is doing,” Yates said.

As a practical matter, Lowery said, the agreement means that there will be no lease sales on the California shelf in fiscal 1990, no matter what the presidential task force recommends in January.

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