Washington — For lease: nearly 1 billion offshore acres for oil and gas exploration.
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Interior Secretary James Watt, who has had controversies with whale-lovers since taking office, gave the final go-ahead to offshore oil-gas exploration here this week and was immediately attacked by environmentalists.
This is just the atmosphere that Secretary Watt seems to thrive under, though this is one of the biggest disputes he has ever entered. It involves the entire outer-continental shelf of the United States and includes questions of shorelines, oil spills, damage to fishbeds, and coastal zones.
Secretary Watt is aggressive, ambitious, abrasive, and never hesitant to support the free-enterprise thinking of his superior, President Reagan. The Carter administration tentatively offered offshore tracts for oil leasing of only around 2 million acres of continental shelf lands. The Watt program, formally released July 21, offers about a billion acres. It calls for 41 lease sales through June 1987.
It's done to protect the United States from an oil shortage, Watts says. Massachusetts, California, and Alaska are particularly affected. A strong response had already come from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and other members of Congress. There was a plan to introduce a resolution in both the House and Senate to block the offshore plan. Answering the criticism with characteristic zest, Watt said in part to his critics:
''(You) wrote a letter harshly criticizing our five-year plan to reduce America's dependence on foreign, unstable, and sometimes hostile suppliers of energy as if the consumers of America did not matter, as if the freedom of Israel were not important, and as if there were no concern about peace or war in the Middle East. . . ''
Various US environmental groups are replying. They include the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Audubon clubs. Some industry groups hail the Watt initiative. James S. Lesch of the National Ocean Industries Association, for instance, says that it might add $18 billion in revenues to the Treasury in 1983.
President Reagan's deep-felt ideology favors private exploitation of natural resources in the public interest where possible. Parallel with debate over offshore leases is a plan to raise $17 billion over the next five years by selling off federal real estate.
The land is equivalent to the size of Florida. It does not include national park lands. It has brought sharp questions from House and Senate members.
Secretary Watt calls it the ''Asset Management Program'' and wants to sell up to 5 percent of federally owned land, much of it small, scattered, and unused tracts, said to be too costly to manage and serving no public purpose.