Promising unprecedented attention to environmental impact, the Interior Department announced plans Thursday to sell as many as 23 oil and gas leases in the outer continental shelf--a cornerstone of the Bush Administration's new national energy strategy.
The five-year plan calls for lease sales in the most promising tracts off the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the shores of Alaska and possibly Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in California, while leaving other areas off limits for the time being.
The Interior Department unveiled the plan only 24 hours after the White House put forward a comprehensive energy policy focused primarily on increased domestic production and avoiding the mandatory conservation measures favored by environmentalists and others.
Although Interior Department officials provided no estimate of the potential proceeds, the revenue generated by the lease sales and the royalties from future oil and gas production would be certain to mount into the tens of billions of dollars.
The outer continental shelf begins several miles from the shoreline, just beyond state-controlled waters. The federal government holds periodic lease sales in which oil companies bid for the right to explore for oil and gas in designated tracts.
The Interior Department blueprint for such lease sales between 1992 and 1997 will be subject to two months of comment before it is revised and submitted to the affected states. Congress will give the revised plan a final look before it takes effect in about May, 1992.
While the Bush Administration's national energy strategy relies heavily on increased offshore oil and gas production, the Interior Department plan actually envisions a dramatic cutback from the last five-year program developed during the Ronald Reagan Administration.
The new plan calls for consideration of 23 lease sales in 12 areas encompassing 250 million acres. The 1987 Reagan plan would have offered lease sales within 786 million acres of the 1.4 billion acres of outer continental shelf under federal jurisdiction.
"The hallmarks of this program are quality science, judicious leasing and clean, safe operations," said Barry A. Williamson, director of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service. "We have set high standards to ensure that the marine and coastal environment is protected and that vital supplies of natural gas and oil can be produced to support a strong economy and high quality of life."
Most of the Pacific shelf--including 99% of the California coast--were put off limits to oil exploration until the the end of the decade by President Bush last year and were not included in the department's five-year lease plan.
But the plan would contemplate leasing in 87 tracts, totaling some 500,000 acres, off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. These areas will be considered for possible leasing after Jan. 1, 1996, Williamson said. If studies of production potential and environmental safety indicate drilling would be prudent, one sale may be proposed in 1996.
The 87 California tracts, typically 5,000 to 5,700 acres each, are located near areas in which development already has taken place.
"We are going to do extensive environmental, socioeconomic, and geological work, as indicated by the National Academy of Sciences," Williamson said. "We are going to spend approximately $10 million annually over the next several years. We are going to have one of the largest oceanographic studies ever conducted in the United States going on in this area."
A decision on the California tracts will not be forthcoming until the scientific results are completed in three or four years, he said.
"We will base our decision on the information we receive. If the information comes in and says we can't go forward, we won't go forward. We are going to the best scientists in the United States."
Despite Williamson's assurances, the possibility of increased development in an area running from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo quickly stirred suspicion and opposition.
"Now they are going after this, and come 2000, they are going to want all the rest of the California coast as well," said Robert Sulnick of the American Oceans Campaign. "To even suggest going after these tracts suggests that Bush is out of touch. This is the beginning of a second oil war here at home."
Addressing Energy Secretary James D. Watkins during a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.) said that he would fight efforts to open the California tracts for drilling.
"It may be that you are going to do some environmental assessments and investigations, (but) that smells like drilling to me, or getting close to it," Seymour said. "I am going to do all that I can as a member of this committee and as a member of the United States Senate to ensure that drilling does not take place on these tracts."
Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), a spokesman for California lawmakers who oppose drilling, said that he will renew efforts to extend a congressional moratorium on all development off the California coast after it expires Oct. 1.
While the new plan calls for consideration of a 1976 lease sale in the 500,000-acre area off the California coast, the focus of attention in the coming five years will be the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
Off the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, a list of 1,000 tracts will be narrowed to 250, from which the Interior Department would offer one area for sale in 1994 and another in 1997. Yearly lease sales are planned in the western and central regions of the Gulf of Mexico. In the eastern gulf, off the Florida Panhandle, sales are proposed for 1994 and 1997.
Two sales each will be considered in Alaska's Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea, as well as one in Cook Inlet, another in the Gulf of Alaska and two more in less promising areas to be selected.
Although the new plan drastically cuts the amount of acreage under consideration for lease sales, the department proposes to make production more efficient by zeroing in on geologic basins with the highest likelihood of productivity.