An area congressman expressed concern Tuesday over President Bush’s plan to make certain areas off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties the first to be opened to offshore oil exploration.
Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) said it was fundamentally unfair for Bush to delay offshore drilling until the year 2000 along the entire California coast except in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Maria Basin off San Luis Obispo County.
But the congressman’s Democratic opponent said Lagomarsino is partly to blame for the plan by not aggressively fighting for coastal protections. “He is not doing the job of protecting our coastline,” said Anita Perez Ferguson, the congressman’s challenger in the November election.
Under Bush’s plan announced Tuesday, the government would offer the areas in the Santa Barbara Channel to oil companies in 1996, four years earlier than other areas in federal waters off the California coastline. The area includes three tracts in the Pacific Ocean three miles off the county’s northwestern shoreline, known as the Rincon. Tracts are generally nine miles square.
Bush’s prohibition on new leasing announced Tuesday will not affect drilling at existing offshore oil platforms or prevent oil companies that have already won leases from beginning exploration.
Oil industry representatives, while lamenting further restrictions on the industry, said the President’s ban would have little impact on drilling in the area.
Mike Marcy, a spokesman for Chevron USA Inc., said the industry is already bogged down with low oil prices. He said some offshore projects have been hamstrung by restrictions from the state and local governments.
“We already have leases in both areas that we do not plan to develop,” Marcy said of offshore areas along the Ventura and Santa Barbara county coastlines.
Marcy said the long-expected moratorium, an extension of a series of congressional bans on new lease sales already in existence, was taken into consideration last year when Chevron pulled out of a new office it built in Oxnard and reassigned or laid off 100 people from the Ventura office.
Few if any other oil workers will lose their jobs because of the drilling ban, said Raul Ramirez, representative of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union local in Oxnard.
“I don’t anticipate that the President’s action will have any impact on our workers,” said Ramirez, whose union has 1,400 members in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Other oil company spokesmen said that offshore leases in the Santa Barbara Channel are not attractive to the industry.
“You have to look at the price of oil, the environmental constraints and the public perception,” said Mark Weller, Texaco’s offshore manager. “The costs of the delays have to be factored in,” he said.
“On today’s market, there just wouldn’t be a lot of interest in bidding on a new lease,” agreed Darwin Sainz, a spokesman for Unocal.
Terry Covington, executive director of the California Coastal Operators Group, an industry association representing nine major oil companies operating off the coast from San Luis Obispo to Ventura County, called the President’s move a bad sign for the future.
“The surprise was the extent of the ban,” she said. “The industry overall is disappointed in how much land has been put out of reach.”
Area environmentalists, concerned about air pollution from offshore rigs, hailed the President’s move as a first step toward protecting the sensitive California coast, a move that should have been taken years ago.
“It’s unfortunate they didn’t put this into effect before they leased the Santa Barbara Channel,” said Stan Greene, president of the 700-member Citizens to Protect the Ojai.
“I don’t think anyone is saying that they shouldn’t get the oil at all,” Greene said. “But they should do it in a way that is sensitive to environmental effects in the area.”
Greene said the President’s move was evidence that the country had entered an environmental era of which politicians should be keenly aware. “Those people who aren’t sensitive to the environment will not be kept in office,” he said.
Congressional candidate Ferguson wasted no time in trying to pin the blame on the area’s incumbent congressman. She said Lagomarsino has not provided the leadership necessary to guard the area’s coastal waters from the threat of more oil drilling.
“He may have sympathy after it happens, but he doesn’t have the leadership to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place,” Ferguson said.
John Doherty, Lagomarsino’s spokesman, said the congressman was unavailable for comment because he was attending a barbecue at the White House. “He’s trying to collar some folks on the issue,” Doherty said.
In a prepared statement, Lagomarsino said it was “fundamentally unfair to focus the entire burden of offshore production on one area, especially an area that is already producing.”
Lagomarsino’s statement also downplayed the significance of putting 87 nine-square-mile tracts off Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties up for lease earlier than the remainder of California coastal waters.
These areas, which include at least three tracts in federal waters three miles from Rincon, would be available to oil companies only if studies show that drilling could be done in an environmentally sound manner, Lagomarsino said.
“I doubt whether tracts in the channel can meet that criterion,” Lagomarsino said. “Before any plan is approved, it would have to be demonstrated that an adequate prevention and cleanup plan . . . is in place.”
Dick O’Rourke, president of Pacific Energy Group in Ventura, a coalition of companies that supply support services and equipment to offshore oil companies, predicted that Bush’s delay on oil leasing would mean the end for some area companies.
“There are a number of companies that have been living hand-to-mouth for a couple of years, hanging on based on what they thought was ahead,” O’Rourke said.
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