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Officials, Activists See No End to Battle Over Coast Protection : Environment: The President’s decision on offshore oil drilling gives ‘breathing space.’ Fears are raised that his action will derail efforts to install permanent safeguards.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

California public officials and environmental activists said Tuesday that President Bush’s decision on offshore oil drilling gives them “breathing space” to fight for further protections but will not end the political bickering over the future of the coast.

Although Bush called for a 10-year delay in drilling off most of California, a future administration could reverse that course. Moreover, Bush left open the possibility of more leasing in 1996 in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Maria Basin, just south of San Luis Obispo. Those waters are already dotted with offshore rigs.

“The President can’t call for a 10-year delay,” said Bob Hattoy, a Sierra Club regional director in Los Angeles. “He won’t be president 10 years from now or necessarily even two years from now. This is a big political hype and it doesn’t make us rest any easier.”

By contrast, Orange County officials and environmental activists expressed great support and enthusiasm for the President’s decision.

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“I’m thrilled with the announcement by the President,” said Laguna Beach Mayor Lida Lenney, a Democrat who often opposes policies of the Bush Administration. “Maybe George Bush is going to prove himself to be an environmental President after all.”

“Fantastic!” exclaimed Karoline Koester, former mayor of San Clemente and an ardent opponent of offshore drilling. “We’ve already had two bad cases of oil spills on the Pacific Coast--at Valdez and at Huntington Beach--and I don’t know how much more is needed before we learn about the need for securing our environment.”

Laguna Beach Councilman Robert F. Gentry, who spearheaded a move to unite the Orange County beach towns in a coalition against more offshore drilling, said he was pleased with the decision.

“I know how hard it was for him to make such a decision, being so involved in the oil and gas industry himself. I think this is a case where he was responding and reacting to the pulse of the people,” Gentry said.

But Hattoy said he feared Bush’s move would “take the wind out of the sails” of congressional efforts to declare legally binding moratoriums on drilling off California and provide permanent protection.

“People shouldn’t be too excited about this,” Hattoy said. “Those politicians who are gloating, like (California Republican Sen.) Pete Wilson, should realize that the only permanent solution is permanent protection and more energy efficiency and conservation.”

Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), who is sponsoring a bill to ban additional drilling permanently, acknowledged that Bush’s announcement may persuade other members of Congress that further protections are unnecessary.

“There’s some political reality here. . . .” Levine said. “We don’t have the sword of Damocles all set to come crashing down on our necks as we did the last few years. As a result of that . . . I suspect that some of my colleagues will not see the urgency that they saw before this announcement.”

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To counteract any such inclination, several environmental groups said they would step up their efforts to win permanent protections from Congress. They also said they probably would fight any new leasing in 1996 in 87 tracts in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Maria Basin.

“They are very sensitive areas,” said James Thornton, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. “The fact that they have been subject to the insults of drilling in the past does not mean it should go on. “

Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego), who has helped lead the fight against drilling, praised Bush’s decision. But he said he did not think it would end the controversy over drilling off the California coast.

“This only delays battles over drilling in those 87 tracts for another day,” he said.

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Even Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who has supported offshore exploration, expressed concern. Gallegly’s district is adjacent to the Santa Barbara Channel, and the congressman complained that the area was “given less protection than other areas of the California coast.”

Brian Baird, an energy analyst for the California Coastal Commission, said those waters are “highly productive” for marine life and contain important fisheries. He said he hopes the commission would be able to participate in any studies on whether to open up more tracts there for drilling.

As of December, 1988, there was active exploration and drilling in 135 of California’s 1,691 federal offshore tracts, according to the coastal commission. Most of the active leasing is in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Maria Basin. Commission officials say the offshore drilling contributes to onshore air pollution, interferes with fishing and threatens marine life.

Despite their reservations about much of Bush’s announcement, environmental activists and several California public officials strongly praised the President’s decision to designate 2,200 square miles of Monterey Bay a protected marine sanctuary. The designation means that no offshore drilling will be allowed in Monterey Bay, where a huge underground canyon shelters many species that are not found anywhere else.

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“It doesn’t protect the entire coast, but it’s helping something in our back yard we have been trying to protect for a long time,” said Assemblyman Sam Farr (D-Carmel.)

Even those critical of Bush’s announcement expressed relief that he had promised some protection.

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) said Bush’s action gave the delegation “the longest breathing space we’ve ever had to fight for permanent protection of our coast.” But she said she was disappointed that “with all of the evidence in,” Bush did not go for a permanent ban. She called a provision allowing Bush to rescind his decision for national security reasons “a giant loophole” that had to be closed.

“We’re in phase two of the fight and phase two of the fight is delay versus permanent protection,” she said.

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Wilson, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in California, called Bush’s decision “the furthest-reaching, most-comprehensive protection that a chief executive has ever given.”

“Nine-nine-plus per cent of the California coast line will be saved to the year 2000 and I will predict to you that there will never be drilling off California’s coast beyond what is now taking place . . . " he said. “I think he (Bush) has earned our gratitude.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Thomas J. Mays said he believes the Feb. 7 oil spill off his city’s coast influenced the President’s decision by sparking a new outcry against offshore drilling.

“I know that after the oil spill, a lot of the community woke up and became active against expansion of offshore oil drilling,” Mays said. “And I think that message has been taken to Washington.”

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Although some oil industry representatives expressed disappointment, others said it would have little effect on their California plans.

A spokesman at Unocal, which operates platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, said oil prices are too low and the environmental regulations too stringent in today’s market to make new drilling profitable.

“On today’s market, there just wouldn’t be a lot of interest in bidding on a new lease,” said Darwin Sainz of Unocal.

Dolan reported from Los Angeles and Miller from Washington. Also contributing were Times staff writers Bill Billiter in Orange County, Joanna M. Miller in Ventura and Harold Maass in San Francisco.

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