Massachusetts may join battle over offshore oil leasing

When US Interior Secretary James Watt met with members of the National Governors' Association last summer in Oklahoma, he told them: ''We have an obligation to work with you.''

To the State of Massachusetts, however, that working relationship is as puzzling as it is one-sided.

The Interior Department appears determined to ignore the state's wishes and hold an offshore oil-lease sale (OCS-52) early next year despite the fact that it may bring only another in a growing number of lawsuits against Secretary Watt's leasing policies.

Moreover, when Massachusetts began to indicate disapproval of some of the terms of the proposed sale, the Interior Department announced its intention to hold yet another sale in February 1984, forcing state officials here to draft formal responses to both at the same time. Deadlines for those responses are less than a month away.

''They're squeezing us,'' says Richard Delaney, director of the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management (CZM) program. ''The sales come faster, they're bigger, and we have no more money to respond to them.''

At issue is Interior's refusal to delete 98 of more than 540 tracts from a lease sale in the Georges Bank, one of the world's richest commercial fishing grounds. The agency says that the sale would be ''consistent to the maximum extent practicable'' with the enforceable policies of the Massachusetts CZM program.

Not so, claims Mr. Delaney. Half of the 98 tracts are in locations where valuable lobsters and bottomfish, such as flounder, are found in large concentrations, he says. The other half are in water 6,000 or more feet deep, where the effectiveness of drilling technology is regarded as uncertain.

''We just do not want to see a fishing grounds as good as Georges Bank used for testing new drilling technology,'' Delaney says.

The state may follow the lead of California - which earlier this year won two legal battles with Interior over offshore oil leasing - and New Jersey and sue to block the sale. If so, environmental groups appear likely to join the suit.

''It looks,'' Delaney says, ''as if we're on a collision course.''

The question in many minds here is why the Interior Department is so intent on another lease sale in Georges Bank at this time. One of the six companies that has explored for oil there since the last lease sale, Exxon, drilled two dry holes before withdrawing its rig and announcing its ''disappointment'' with the Atlantic seaboard as a source.

Mobil, which also drilled two dry holes in Georges Bank, is still deciding whether to resume the effort before its leases expire in two years, according to company spokesman John Flint.

Conoco, Tenneco, and Shell apparently also have failed to find exploitable quantities of oil on Georges Bank so far.

Moreover, oil companies generally are spending less on offshore exploration these days than previously. Last month, only 68 of 144 tracts in the Gulf of Mexico were bid on, not one of them in deep water. In August, only 40 tracts out of 554 offered off the Alaska, California, and Atlantic coasts attracted bids.

But, according to Ed Essertier, information officer for the minerals management section of the Interior Department, optimism remains high that there will be a positive response to the pending lease sale.

''We're not at all disheartened,'' he says. ''We don't expect to get commercial production until five to seven years after the sale anyway.''

Mr. Essertier says the November sale in the Gulf of Mexico produced ''over $ 600 million in bonuses'' when Interior would have been happy with $500 million.

He also says oil companies themselves will indicate by their actions whether they feel comfortable drilling in waters as deep as those over which Massachusetts worries.

Essertier says the Interior Department is hoping to go ahead with sale OCS-52 , already twice postponed, in March.

But if differences remain with Massachusetts officials, he says, ''our only course is to continue discussions with them.''

He maintains it is not Interior's intention to spite Massachusetts by heaping on it more work than can be handled in a short time.

Planning of lease sales takes close to two years, Essertier says, and to allow for environmental impact studies and other requirements, they can't be held up. Notification of OCS-52 was made in early 1980, and already there are plans for sale OCS-96 in 1986.

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