Washington — The United States Interior Department wants to let energy companies drill for oil and gas off the California and Alaska coasts. But if some local residents and officials from the areas have their way, no one will to be drilling for anytime soon.
Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield was scheduled today to personally deliver a last-minute appeal to Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel to postpone a federal oil-lease sale of a tract in Bristol Bay. The bay lies at the base of the Alaska Peninsula, which stretches out into the Aleutian Islands. It is considered one of the world's premier fishing areas.
Also today, the House Appropriations Committee was expected to consider a proposal to extend a moratorium on oil and gas exploration off the California coast. The ban has been in place for nearly five years.
Both actions underscore the complications and opposition the Interior Department has encountered in trying to implement its outer-continental-shelf lease-sale program.
Of the two actions, oil industry officials say they see Bristol Bay as a bellwether of the way the Interior Department will weigh a state's economic and environmental concerns against projected national energy needs.
In Alaska's case, Governor Sheffield's plea represents the latest attempt by state officials to thwart Mr. Hodel's plans to offer 5.6 million acres in Bristol Bay for lease by December. Sheffield wants the Interior Department to postpone sale of the tracts for at least 10 years, pending the completion of a battery of environmental studies.
If Hodel rejects Sheffield's request, a coalition of environmental, commercial-fishing, and native American groups say they will sue to block the action. If this happens, the case could prove to be a landmark test of a 1978 amendment to the federal Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The amendment requires the Interior Department to consider a state's economic and environmental concerns along with national energy requirements when making offshore lease decisions.
``This is a major test,'' says Sarah Chasis, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in New York. ``The economics [against development] are stronger here than anywhere. It's a test of the environmental laws that allow states to protect themselves.''
Hodel has said the Bristol Bay lease plans are in the ``national interest.'' The US government estimates that there are 279 million barrels of recoverable oil in the area it wants to lease, down from an earlier estimate of 364 million barrels. The oil industry, smarting from a succession of empty wells in other regions off the Alaskan shore, is eager to give Bristol Bay a try. If Hodel, who by law must formally respond to Sheffield's request, gives a green light, the first sale could take place as early
Hodel will have also had to deal with the California delegation's concerns. In July he reached a preliminary agreement with members of the delegation to close all but 150 of 6,400 offshore California tracts to oil and gas exploration through the end of the century. But after heavy industry lobbying, Hodel backed down, saying he wanted to trade some of the 150 tracts for other tracts.
A moratorium on drilling, which had been dropped as part of the agreement, was hastily but temporarily reinstated by Congress. Members of the delegation who are back at the bargaining table with Hodel say extending the moratorium is critical to their bargaining position. At this point, observers are unsure whether a bill to extend the temporary moratorium will pass the House.