The chief congressional opponents of California offshore oil drilling--reacting in part to political fallout from the Persian Gulf crisis--have suspended efforts to write into law the multi-year drilling moratorium announced in June by President Bush.
Instead, Reps. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) and Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) are urging colleagues to support another one-year drilling ban for California when the House Appropriations Committee considers the 1991 spending bill for the Interior Department, perhaps as early as next week. The department handles the leasing of offshore drilling tracts.
Aides to both congressmen said Tuesday that they are likely to press for a multi-year ban again next year. But they said congressional concerns about America's energy dependence, fostered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, coupled with strong opposition from pro-drilling forces, led to the decision to drop the matter this year.
"I don't think we expected as much opposition as we got," one congressional aide said.
"Where we might have considered taking on the battle under normal circumstances, under the current situation (in the Persian Gulf), the answer is . . . 'Let's circle the wagons and hold on to what we've got.' "
Michael Matz, a Washington official of the Sierra Club, one of the nation's largest environmental groups, said, "As far as codifying the President's announcement (of the drilling moratorium), that will be difficult, and the situation in Iraq has undoubtedly contributed to that."
He added, however, "I think there is still sufficient support for a one-year moratorium."
In a long-anticipated decision, the President on June 26 announced that the Interior Department will delay for at least 10 years new oil lease sales off most of California, all of southwest Florida, Washington and Oregon, and New England north of Rhode Island.
The President also said new lease sales will be postponed for at least six years in a small number of tracts off California where rigs now pump oil. Those tracts are in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Maria Basin.
Lowery and Panetta, who has led congressional efforts to enact one-year drilling bans off California every year since 1981, had wanted to pass legislation giving the President's decision the force of law. Drilling opponents argue that further disruption of world oil markets could prompt the President to change his mind, or that a new Administration could easily rescind Bush's offshore drilling decision.
In July the two California congressmen lost a bid to formalize the multi-year drilling ban when the Interior Department bill came before the House Appropriations Committee's Interior subcommittee. They had planned to bring the matter up again with the full committee, aides to the congressmen said, but were dissuaded to a large extent by congressional reaction to events in the Persian Gulf. The Senate has not yet considered the measure.
"We still believe the policy makes sense and that it ought to be part of a national energy strategy," said Barry J. Toiv, an aide to Panetta. Such a strategy must emphasize energy conservation and the development and use of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources, Toiv said.
At least three separate groups of environmentalists and coastal community officials, including some from Orange County, have traveled to Washington in recent days to lobby for a continuation of the annual drilling ban.
The most severe congressional critic of the annual bans, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), will not oppose another one-year ban for California and the rest of the areas targeted by the President, an aide said Tuesday.
However, Regula "has problems" with drilling bans for tracts off North Carolina, New Jersey and the Florida panhandle that were approved by the Interior subcommittee but not included in the President's moratorium.
Regula said Tuesday that dropping efforts to enact a multi-year moratorium was "a wise decision, in light of events" in the Mideast.
The crisis in the Persian Gulf, Regula said, "has made the public much more aware of the offshore issue" and made members of Congress more concerned about the effects that a multi-year ban on offshore drilling can have on national energy policy.