President Bush Tuesday banned new oil drilling off 99% of the California coast for the remainder of the decade, saying more time is needed to study production potential and to weigh scientific concerns and environmental impact.
Bush declared a similar embargo on leasing activity on the outer continental shelf extending the length of Oregon and Washington as well as within a 14-million-acre tract surrounding the Florida Keys and an area reaching from Rhode Island to the Canadian border.
The announcement followed months of debate and speculation. It took supporters of offshore development by surprise, failed to satisfy environmentalists who wanted a permanent development ban and divided politicians along party lines.
Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego), who played a key role in drafting a congressional moratorium on development off the California coast last year, said the decision validates Bush’s stated intent to be the “environmental President.”
Many Democrats, however, said that Bush had only delayed the ultimate resolution on the future of offshore drilling in the United States. Critics noted that a new President could reverse the action. And even Bush could change his mind. A national security exemption gives the President the power to reopen banned areas if he determines that such a move is required by national security interests, such as energy supply disruptions.
Only in one area did the President agree to permanently bar oil and gas development. Responding to a recommendation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he said that the government will establish a 2,200-square-mile National Marine Sanctuary in Monterey Bay, the largest breeding ground for marine mammals in the lower 48 states.
At the same time, he left open the option for further development in the rich oil and gas formations of the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Maria Basin, where the Department of the Interior has identified 87 tracts with high potential for significant production.
Studies of the area will continue, but since major development already has occurred, the tracts will be reconsidered for leasing after 1996.
Studies of the Oregon and Washington coast are expected to take six to seven years. Development in those areas probably will not begin during this decade, even if the government decides to proceed.
Federal leasing strategy is promulgated in five-year plans. The next will go into effect in 1992, followed by new plans in 1997 and 2002.
“I have often stated my belief that development of oil and gas on the outer continental shelf should occur in an environmentally sound manner,” Bush said in a statement released by the White House press office.
He said that he had accepted an interagency task force recommendation that “further steps to protect the environment are needed.”
The announcement marked perhaps the most far-reaching environmental decision of Bush’s presidency.
Days after entering office, he put on hold Reagan Administration plans to open for development millions of acres of the outer continental shelf off Northern and Southern California and the tip of Florida. Bush named a task force to reevaluate the economic and environmental impacts of those plans.
The task force report, never made public, was given to him in early January. While the decision was being pondered, opposition to development mounted. In an effort to address it, the Administration floated proposals to share revenues from offshore production with local governments and to involve communities in making decisions about offshore drilling.
Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., who chaired the task force and later hinted that leasing would be permitted in at least some of the areas in question, said Tuesday that he was “not unhappy” over the President’s decision.
At the heart of it, he said, was the Administration’s “commitment to prohibit offshore drilling in areas where environmental risks outweigh the potential energy benefits to the nation.”
In declaring off-limits federal territory off Central California, Washington and Oregon and the Georges Bank area of the Atlantic, Bush extended the embargo to areas not even included in the task force study.
Central California was considered the most environmentally sensitive area along the state coast, while Georges Bank, a 175-mile-long underwater plateau, is one of the country’s richest fisheries.
Earlier this year, Bush virtually had conceded that further leasing in the area of the Florida Keys would be banned because it is the site of the United States’ only deposits of coral.
Major oil companies already have invested as much as $200 million in leases in the area. Lujan said that federal officials will join the state of Florida in negotiations to see whether the drilling rights can be acquired by the state to further ensure protection of the area.
The action by Bush did not address future leasing activity in some sensitive offshore areas, including Alaska and the middle Atlantic coast.
The President’s decision rested heavily upon a report by the National Academy of Sciences, which advised his task force that there is not sufficient scientific understanding of the environmental impact to go ahead with drilling in the three huge areas that the Reagan Administration had proposed to open.
Bush said that the studies suggested by the academy will be carried out during the delay he imposed.
Supporters of offshore development were taken aback by the announcement.
“We had expected some delay, but we did not think it would be this long nor this extensive,” said Carl Schmid, a spokesman for the National Ocean Industries Assn. “We think the President has abdicated his responsibility to supply safe, dependable energy sources. He has sidestepped a tough political issue by taking the easy way out, leaving the tough decision to a future President.”
Charles DiBona, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said that extension of the lease ban “will lead to decreased domestic production, more imports, more dependence on the international oil cartel, more tanker traffic and export of jobs and investment overseas.”
The outer continental shelf, beginning three miles out from the shore, is estimated to have oil reserves of some 8.2 billion barrels and natural gas deposits of about 75 trillion cubic feet.
Development of the shelf began in 1954. Of its 260,000 tracts, 118,000 have been offered for lease.
Even before Bush’s announcement, the areas covered by the task force study were under a moratorium ordered by Congress in an amendment to the Interior Department’s fiscal 1990 budget.
Efforts will be made later this week to add the same provision to the 1991 budget. Sources said that the Administration would aggressively lobby against the move “because we do not think (congressional) moratoria are the way to make policy.”
The White House noted that the decisions encompassed in the announcement would be subject to change should “external events"--such as a cutoff of overseas oil supplies--cause the President to declare a national security exemption.
California Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) called the provision a “giant loophole” that must be closed.
Staff writer Alan C. Miller contributed to this report.