For weeks, President Bush has declared himself on the verge of deciding whether to sell more leases off the California coast for offshore oil exploration and production. This week's report on what his own task force on offshore oil told him way back in January makes it difficult to figure out not just what is taking him so long, but also what there is to decide.
Bush asked for the task force study in February of last year after he decided, to the general cheers of environmental groups, to suspend lease sales until he had a better grasp of the environmental risks in expanded offshore operations.
As The Times reported Wednesday, the task force said scientific data is too sketchy to give anybody a better grasp of the risk right now and recommended that Bush put off decisions on whether to let the oil industry drill off the Northern and Southern California coasts indefinitely. The report also addressed risks from oil operations to coral reefs off the Florida Everglades, but Bush has already ruled that out.
The task force view, which still has not been officially made public, is not new. The research council of the National Academy of Sciences came to the same conclusion some time ago about big gaps in what either government or industry knows about the hazards of offshore oil operations. What is different about the task force request for indefinite delay is the people who made it. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., a strong advocate of offshore drilling, was chairman of the group. Its members included Energy Secretary James Watkins and Richard Darman, Bush's budget director.
Environmental risk and energy production are in conflict, the task force said, and without more data, nobody can strike an acceptable balance between the two. So it's hard to argue with Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), who opposes any more drilling off California. "If (Bush) proceeds with any lease sales after this report," she said, "he will be completely missing the point."