Washington — Interior Secretary James G. Watt declares that his mind is open on whether to sell oil drilling leases in four disputed areas off the scenic coast of northern California.
The decision, due in May, is expected to signal how far the Reagan administration will go to seek more oil and gas over protests from environmentalists.
Hardly a man to shy away from controversy, Secretary Watt waded right into it when, as one of his first acts, he proposed leasing the four tracts. And March 10 he sat down for a spirited exchange with California congressmen, some of whom are unhappy that Watt is even considering the lease sale.
"I don't have a prejudice or bias," he told the congressmen. They, in turn, left little doubt about how they stand.
Both Democrats and Republicans grilled Watt on the issue that has been hotly disputed in California for five years. Some questioned whether the new administration had the legal right to reopen the lease sale of the four tracts. The Carter administration set aside those areas last November.
"The bottom line is that he resources [of oil and gas] out there don't compare with the risks to the resources on land," said Leon E. Panetta (D), whose district includes Santa Cruz, directly onshore from one of the proposed drilling sites. "This is one of the most beautiful areas in the country," he said. And besides, $1 billion in fishing and $11 billion in tourist trade would be put in jeopardy by oil drilling and the threat of oil spills, he argued.
Republican Don H. Clausen, whose district includes Mendocino, inland from another of the four contested sites, called for confining the oil rigs to a fifth, less controversial site -- the Santa Maria basin off the coast of central California. He proposes leaving the four northern basins as a "national reserve for use in case of national emergency."
No one knows for sure how much oil and natural gas lies under the basins of California. The US Geological Survey estimates that in the five sites now proposed for lease there may be 548 million barrels of oil and 621 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Perhaps 80 percent of that is expected to be found in the less-contested Santa Maria basin.
However, oil companies also would like to explore the four northern basins, including one just off the coast of San Francisco and another off Eureka, as well as those near Mendocino and Santa Cruz.
Opponents charge that there may be only 10 days' supply of oil (at the current US consumption rate) in the four areas. "If that's the case, then there probably won't be any production," says a spokesman for the Western Oil and Gas Association, based in Los Angeles. But, he adds, "Until you put on the drill bit and go down and take a look, you don't know.
A determined coalition of California environmentallists, local governments, chambers of commerce, and fishermen, as well as Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., don't want to give oil companies a chance to do that drilling in northern California waters.
If the drilling does come, it will mean construction of platforms some three miles offshore. Any oil produced would be put on tankers for transport. On shore, in an area that is largely rural and unindustrialized now, the companies would build support facilities.
All these activities are seen as threatening. The drilling sites "are very near shore," points out Richard Charter, spokesman for 10 coastal counties in central and northern California. This makes controlling oil spills difficult, he says. "There is no margin for error, no time to intercept the spill."
Environmentalists are planning a series of marches and rallies March 21 in Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Monterey to protest the oil lease proposal.