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U.S. Is Seeking to Limit States’ Influence on Offshore Decisions

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration, which lost its court fight to keep alive oil drilling plans off California’s coastline, is quietly rewriting federal rules to limit states’ influence on what happens off their coasts.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer denounced the proposed revisions Wednesday as an effort to “eviscerate” the federal court decision that reaffirmed California’s right to review all offshore oil development plans, including those involving 36 unexploited leases off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Gov. Gray Davis’ administration said the proposed changes would weaken California’s authority over offshore drilling. A letter signed by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and 90 other members of Congress calls the revision a “pernicious assault on states’ rights.”

The proposed changes would assert that federal -- not state -- agencies are the experts on any environmental impacts to a state’s coastline from drilling or other activities. They also would give greater weight to the opinions of federal agencies, by eliminating the historic deference given to state agencies.

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David M. Kaiser, a U.S. Department of Commerce official handling the matter, said the administration would not respond to any specific criticism until after Monday, the deadline for all public comment on the proposed rules.

Kaiser did say, “There is nothing in the proposed rule that would limit states’ rights.”

The Commerce Department has proposed 24 pages of modified rules for the Coastal Zone Management Act, a 1972 federal law that essentially hands over some federal power to the states so that they can be partners in protecting and preserving their shorelines and coastal waters.

The Commerce Department’s Office of Oceans and Coastal Resource Management completed a “comprehensive revision” of those rules in the final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Now the Commerce Department is revising them again, at the urging of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force.

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Cheney’s task force was sympathetic to complaints by the oil industry that coastal states, especially California, have slowed or stopped oil drilling plans because they didn’t comport with state policies to protect coastal and marine life.

Bob Poole, coastal coordinator of the Western States Petroleum Assn., said oil companies generally support the new rules. “The bottom line is that we would like to ensure the process be as predictable and clearly defined as possible,” Poole said. “It only makes good business sense.”

Yet Mary Nichols, California’s resources secretary, views the seemingly small, innocuous changes as an erosion of a 30-year partnership between the federal government and states to oversee activities in federal waters -- those that begin three miles offshore.

“The Bush administration wants to get rid of these pesky delays by governors asserting their right to slow or stop federal energy development,” Nichols said. “The federal government is proposing to take away rights that states have had for 30 years.”

Other coastal states are also objecting.

Nichols and Lockyer see the rule changes as an end-run around December’s ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which effectively blocked new oil drilling plans until the California Coastal Commission reviews them for environmental hazards. The Bush administration decided earlier this year not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court case focused on 36 offshore tracts, which extend from Oxnard to northern Santa Barbara County and were leased to oil companies between 1968 and 1982. The leases were never developed partly because of state and local resistance, but also because periodic drops in oil prices led many big oil companies to withhold new investment in costly offshore platforms and pipelines.

Those leases are supposed to expire after five years, and the Bush administration is seeking to extend them -- a move opposed by state officials.

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