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Report to Bush Urges Drilling Decision Delay

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush’s top-level task force has recommended that he indefinitely delay decisions on whether to allow oil drilling off the Southern and Northern California coasts until more scientific studies are completed, according to a copy of the task force report made available to The Times.

The report suggests that Bush either defer or cancel plans to permit drilling off the shores of California and Florida, but stopped short of recommending that it be banned forever, as some environmentalists and California public officials have advocated.

It also concludes that drilling off California and Florida might provide as much as 2.1 million barrels of oil a day and replace as much as $40 billion in imported oil over a 30-year period.

The President, who met with opponents of drilling from the California congressional delegation last week, has promised to announce his long-awaited and politically sensitive decision shortly.

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The report, presented to Bush last January but never made public by the White House, said existing information on potential sales of oil-gas leases off California and Florida was too inadequate to justify a federal government go-ahead for exploration and development.

In a finding sure to be welcomed by opponents of drilling, the report said: “The Task Force concludes that although many of the environmental effects of oil and gas activities, taken individually, are acceptable, collectively they could result in unacceptable changes to the local environment in or near the (proposed drilling sites) unless new measures are taken to control or mitigate such effects.”

Discussing the conflict between protecting the environment and promoting energy development, the report said: “Based on its review of available information, the Task Force concludes that additional time and effort are needed before environmental concerns can be resolved in a manner that provides an acceptable balance between these two goals.”

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), who made a copy of the report available to The Times, said it was great news for opponents of offshore drilling since it amounted to an “environmental indictment” of this form of oil and gas development.

“I hope the President will read this report and decide to grant permanent protection to the magnificent coastal areas that are threatened with drilling,” she said. “If he proceeds with any lease sales off California after this report, he will be completely missing its point.”

The task force was chaired by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. and included Energy Secretary James Watkins as well as William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; John Knauss, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Richard Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

They reported to the President on potential Lease Sale 91, ranging from north of Sonoma County to the Oregon border; Lease Sale 95, from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border, and Lease Sale 116, off the southwest coast of Florida.

Boxer said the recommendations also should apply to Lease Sale 119--off the Central California coast from San Luis Obispo to the north end of Sonoma County--but the task force report did not cover that area.

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In the report, task force members said the Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior had spent more than $41 million on environmental studies for these three areas during the past 15 years.

“Nevertheless, the Task Force finds that some additional studies . . . are needed before the Secretary of Interior makes leasing decisions in the three areas,” the report concluded. It said a special inquiry conducted by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council found shortcomings in the amount of oceanographic, socioeconomic and ecological information available regarding the California and Florida coastal areas.

In some cases, the report noted, more information about possible effects of offshore drilling will help to resolve public concerns about the practice.

“In other cases, additional environmental protection measures need to be developed, perhaps even tested, before leasing decisions proceed,” the report said. “New working relationships and institutional arrangements may be needed so that affected local communities have more influence on leasing, exploration and development decisions.”

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In spelling out other measures that could be taken, the task force recommended a requirement that offshore oil be transported in pipelines instead of tankers “where feasible and environmentally preferable.”

It also said contingency planning, risk assessment and response capability for oil spills should be improved. And it urged stronger protection of sensitive areas.

“Because some of these measures could be instituted only at considerable cost to lessees (oil and gas producers), taken together they could substantially reduce the benefits of developing oil and gas and could discourage the industry from bidding for the right to Outer Continental Shelf resources,” the report added.

The task force also recommended that air emissions from drilling facilities off the California coast be subject to more stringent controls--roughly equivalent to standards applicable to onshore installations.

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The report presented Bush with several options for each of the two California coastal areas. For Southern California, it said the government could proceed with preparations for a lease sale, but defer a final decision until additional scientific studies are available.

Another option would be to cancel the proposed sale and defer future leasing decisions until the studies are finished, while establishing more stringent air quality controls and toughen oil spill contingency plans for offshore facilities.

Or, the task force said, Bush could put off leasing decisions until a new five-year leasing program begins in 1992 and offer tracts only in the Santa Maria Basin and San Diego Outer Basin in the next sale off Southern California.

Yet another option would exclude the Southern California area from consideration in the new 1992-97 leasing period after cancellation of sale 95, putting off drilling until late 1997 at least.

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For Northern California, similar options were proposed to defer or cancel the sale of leases. Under one plan, tracts in the Eel River Basin would be offered in 1992-97. Another option would exclude the Northern California area from the next five-year leasing period.


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