San Francisco — Estimates of the nation's offshore oil reserves were dramatically reduced last week. Except, ironically, off northern and central California -- some of the most fiercely guarded territory of the environmental movement. These estimates, by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, cut undiscovered petroleum reserves by 55 percent for the nation and by 73 percent for Alaska. But the central and northern coasts of California, taken as a unit, showed a 20 percent increase.
All sides agree these estimates are highly speculative, drawn largely from the failure of recent oil searches. Further, oil-industry officials and environmentalists say there's no way to know for certain how much oil there is unless drills are sunk in the ocean floor.
And that's happening now.
Last week the US Interior Department issued the final go-ahead for the first exploratory drilling in 22 years off the coast of northern California. The last permit, needed to begin drilling 32 holes offshore between Half Moon Bay and Eureka, allowed McClelland Engineering Inc. of Houston to dump its drilling muds at sea.
However, a coalition of environmental groups will sue to halt the June 12 drilling start up, says Trent Orr, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says the coalition will charge that the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) didn't adequately assess effects on marine life of the 35,000 pounds of mud to be discharged per test-hole.
McClelland is merely doing scientific sampling for geophysical data on the potential for oil, insists Peter Supko, manager of exploration geology services for McClelland. That proprietary data will be offered for sale to oil companies, he says.
``It is not a natural follow-on that a program like this would lead to exploratory drilling. . . . We're trying to get information that would allow people to make better judgments,'' Mr. Supko says.
But Sierra Club president Michelle Perrault says the sampling will be used to justify future drilling. ``There are certainly areas where drilling can be done . . . but you don't have to get oil everywhere just because it's there,'' she says. California has already provided a balance, with drilling in the south, she says.
Parts of the northern California area are protected by a congressional moratorium on exploratory drilling. Because McClelland's drilling permits are ``geological and geophysical,'' they aren't considered ``exploratory.''
But California US Sen. Alan Cranston (D) and several congressmen, representing coastal counties and cities that oppose drilling, are pushing to extend the moratorium to all drilling, and to the year 2000.
The oil industry wants the moratorium rolled back, at least for exploration, says Mike Fergus of the Western Oil and Gas Association. ``At present consumption between now and the year 2000, we will have had to find 32 billion more barrels of oil. . . . A large portion of that has to to come from promising areas [because it doesn't exist in reserve],'' he says.
``The sooner we find out it's [oil] there or isn't there, the sooner we'll know how to meet our needs,'' says James Carlin, project director for the OTA report. The report is an analysis of MMS data, gathered from federal and private researchers.