A boisterous crowd of environmentalists, Central Coast residents and local officials Wednesday assailed a federal plan to open 500,000 acres of coast from Ventura to Morro Bay to new offshore oil drilling.
About 600 people, including some industry and business leaders who support oil development, jammed a Santa Maria hotel meeting room for the sole California public hearing on the issue. It was one of eight national public hearings this month on the U.S. Minerals Management Service's five-year offshore leasing plan.
"The diverse, complex and delicate ecosystems . . . along the coastline . . . are very sensitive," said David Blakely, chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. "They are not worth sacrificing for poor-quality crude that will make very little difference in our national energy picture."
The overflow crowd--which spilled into hallways and caused the start of the session to be delayed because of lack of seats--cheered, chanted and waved placards.
A group of bicyclists traveled 50 miles south from San Luis Obispo to express opposition to oil drilling, and the environmental group Greenpeace held a demonstration before the session in front of a huge pile of rusting oil drums.
But a contingent that supports oil development also made its presence known. Members waved placards, engaged in shouting matches outside the hotel with anti-oil representatives and testified that oil drilling was justified.
"Why export jobs, technology and financing to other countries in order to import oil," said Terry Covington, director of the California Coastal Operators Group, which represents oil companies involved in offshore drilling. "We have significant oil reserves in California . . . we should benefit from this oil."
Testimony given at the hearing will be turned over to Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, who is expected to make the final decision on opening the area to drilling by fall, 1992. If approved, the California lease sales could begin in 1996.
During the past year, state and many local officials have asked the federal government to rescind its proposal to open the stretch of central coastline to oil drilling.
Gov. Pete Wilson said in April that offshore oil drilling should not be permitted there. The governor, in a letter to Lujan, said the region includes areas of "extreme environmental sensitivity" where drilling should not be allowed.
The Bush Administration's comprehensive energy policy, released last February, calls for increased domestic oil production in order to avoid mandatory conservation measures favored by many environmentalists.
As a result, the Interior Department has called for lease sales in the most promising tracts off the East Coast and Alaska, in the Gulf of Mexico and possibly along the coast from Ventura to Morro Bay.
Many sensitive areas were spared when President Bush declared a drilling moratorium off most of the California coast. But the ban did not include the coastline off Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
The Interior Department has proposed leasing 87 three-mile-square tracts in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Maria Basin, where there could be rich oil and gas formations, if studies indicate that no environmental damage would result from drilling.
But environmentalists say the amount of oil that could be produced in this area is far less than the amount that can be saved through conservation.
"If all the oil in those tracts were recovered--which will take about 20 years--it would supply the nation's energy needs for less than two months," said Bill Walker, a spokesman for Greenpeace. "You can save much more oil than that through very modest conservation measures . . . and you won't have the pollution and risk of environmental disaster associated with oil drilling."
But, he said, the Bush Administation's energy policy virtually ignored conservation and renewable energy sources in favor of a renewed commitment to oil and coal and an effort to resurrect the nuclear power industry.
Officials along the Central Coast argue that there is already extensive oil development in the area. More development would simply increase the risk of an oil spill that could harm sea life in the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary or devastate the economies of beach towns that rely on tourism, the officials contend.
Federal waters off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, which begin three miles from shore, already contain 19 of the 23 oil platforms on the California Coast.
Santa Barbara has been a center for anti-oil activism since January, 1969, when a "blowout" erupted below Unocal Corp.'s drilling platform Alpha, spewing 3 million gallons of crude onto local beaches and killing more than 10,000 birds.
In the 1970s, offshore drilling in the area was limited. When the Reagan Administration opened for development vast stretches of coast near Santa Barbara, local environmentalists again went into action.
Santa Barbara officials are concerned because about a quarter of the tracts proposed for development are in shipping lanes. No platforms have been built in this area, but officials fear that if oil development proceeds, a freighter could hit a platform.
Bush's decision to ban drilling off most of the California coast for the remainder of the decade satisfied neither environmentalists nor oil industry officials. Environmentalists wanted a permanent drilling ban on the entire coast, and supporters of offshore development had pushed for more sales of oil drilling leases up and down the coast.
Interior Department officials proposed opening up the area along the Central Coast, they said, because there already was considerable development there and the region has a high potential for oil and gas deposits.
Offshore Oil Drilling
* 87 tracts, generally 3 miles square, proposed for oil-drilling leases by the federal government in mid-1996.
** 97 tracts currently leased. Less than one-fifth have been developed and are producing oil.