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26-Feb-2001 Monday 

Oil drillers covet California coast
Environmentalists fear Bush will expedite tapping of existing leases 

Toby Eckert 

It's a federally protected, environmentally sensitive piece of real estate that oil and gas companies are dying to sink some drills into.

But it's not the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's the seabed off California's coast. And so far the Bush administration has said, "Hands off."

Despite the new administration's zeal to boost domestic energy production and allow drilling in places like the arctic refuge, it has shown no sign of wavering from a decade-old moratorium on new oil and gas drilling leases in the federal waters off California.

But the moratorium doesn't cover dozens of existing leases, and
environmentalists fear the administration will try to expedite proposals for drilling on them.

"I can't imagine that they are going to hold the line in a particularly strong way," said David Allgood, Southern California director for the League of Conservation Voters.

Oil and gas industry groups concede that they would like to see faster approval of applications to sink wells or do exploratory drilling on the 36 undeveloped leases. Five such proposals -- for drilling off the state's central coast -- are under consideration by the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that regulates drilling beyond three miles of the shore.

The leases may hold as much as 1 billion barrels of oil, according to the service.

But officials at the agency say they have received no orders to expedite the complex review process, which involves many other federal, state and local agencies.

"We don't have any policy directives at this point," said John D. Romero, a spokesman for the service's Pacific region.

Twenty-three platforms in federal waters are producing an average of 98,000 barrels of oil and 190 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. (There are also 42 leases in state waters -- where new drilling has been banned since the 1980s -- but more than half of them are not producing oil or gas.)

Most of the platforms -- which resemble Erector Set creations, bristling with derricks and cranes -- are in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Maria Basin off the central coast. The region stretches from southern San Luis Obispo County to Ventura County, and skirts the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

There are also four platforms off the coast at Long Beach.

The movement to limit offshore drilling rose like a tidal wave after a 1969 well blowout off Santa Barbara that spewed 3.4 million gallons of oil into the ocean, fouled miles of beaches and killed hundreds of birds.

The anti-drilling effort reached its apex in 1990, when then-President Bush slapped a moratorium on new oil and gas leases off the coasts of California and Florida until 2000, citing a lack of sufficient data about the effects of the drilling on the shorelines. Former President Clinton extended the moratorium until 2012, disappointing environmentalists and California
officials who wanted a permanent ban.

The moratorium did not cover 79 existing leases or 87 unleased tracts off the California coast. Oil and gas companies paid more than $1 billion for the leases, many of them purchased during the Reagan administration when Interior Secretary James Watt opened the entire Pacific coast to drilling.

The areas not covered by the moratorium, particularly the 36 leases that remain undeveloped, have been the frequent target of protests and litigation by environmentalists.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that we have all these undeveloped areas that may be drilled," said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.

The Minerals Management Service, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is weighing proposals to develop or explore several leases in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Maria Basin. The industry contends that drilling is safer and more environmentally friendly than ever. Many of the new wells and exploratory bores can be drilled from existing platforms using a method known as "slant drilling" -- meaning there is less need to build more of the unsightly structures.

"I think from an industry perspective there are a lot of resources
available to the U.S. that the industry can develop in a very safe and environmentally sound manner. It's something we should pursue," said Frank Holmes, coastal coordinator for the Western States Petroleum Association. "There's also a tremendous amount of regulatory oversight."

Over the past three decades, spills off the California coast have averaged about 27 barrels a year, Holmes said. He said natural seeps from the ocean floor off Santa Barbara alone total more than 100 barrels a day.

"Not that any spillage is acceptable, but that's a very good safety
record," Holmes said.

Krop said environmentalists "take great exception to that" assessment.

"There's constantly small spills and leaks," she said. "It just appears pretty obvious that no matter how advanced the technology, this still happens."

The most recent major spill occurred in 1997, when a pipeline running between Platform Irene and Point Arguello in Santa Barbara County broke and spewed 10,000 gallons of crude oil.

A 1995 study by the Minerals Management Service estimated that California's coastal areas held 4 billion to 7 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil and 5 trillion to 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Most of it is off the central coast, but there are significant pockets off Los Angeles, Santa Monica, San Pedro and in the Oceanside-Capistrano Basin, the study said.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge holds 4 billion to 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

But Holmes and other industry sources concede that the moratorium on new leases off the California coast is unlikely to be lifted any time soon, even though the Bush administration has come close to declaring an energy crisis.

California is one of the most politically influential states -- its
rejection of Bush in last November's election notwithstanding -- and support for the moratorium is deep and bipartisan.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a conservative Republican from San Diego's North County, is sponsoring legislation to extend a congressional moratorium on new oil and gas leases off California. He also wants to apply it to new drilling and exploration on all existing leases.

"The environmental sensitivities along the entire California coastline make the region an inappropriate place to drill for oil using current technology," Cunningham said.

"Not only does offshore drilling pose a threat to our wildlife and beaches, it could have a negative impact on our $27-billion-a-year tourism and fishing industries."