Hold it, say wary Californians to new oil leases

Armed with fresh environmental warnings about the potential hazards of offshore oil exploration, California officials are mounting a legal and political showdown with the federal government.

The dispute concerns "lease sale No. 53," a 700-mile, 1.3 million-acre stretch of Pacific outercontinental shelf that the US Geological Survey thinks may hold 548 million barrels of oil and 621 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

The US Department of Interior is proceeding with the required environmental and bureaucratic review and expects to solicit bids for oil exploration about a year from now. But California, pointing to its right under the federal Costal Zone Management Act to have a say in projects that "directly affect" state coastal areas, is insisting that the lease sale be delayed for two years.

What concerns state officials are the findings and unanswered questions raised in a draft environmental impact statement issued last month by the Interior Department. There will be some environmental degradation accompanying the 20-year project, the report acknowledges, including two or three oil spills of 1,000 barrels or greater and 153 to 230 spills of less than 1,000 barrels.

"Impacts resulting from oil spills will be unavoidable," the report states.

Californians remember the 1969 platform blowout that sent 75,000 barrels of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel, fouling beaches, killing wildlife, and causing heavy losses to the commercial fishing industry. They find little comfort in the Interior Department's pointing out that "background pollution" from oil and grease in sewage discharge and industrial seepage already "provide the equivalent of a major oil spill every day."

Although geological and seismic studies have yet to be completed, the Interior Department acknowledges that earthquakes would be one of the principal hazards to offshore oil facilities. About 100 earthquakes have been recorded off the coast of California between 1934 and 1974, about 10 of which were greater than 4.5 on the Richter scale.

Lease sale No. 53 (which probably would include 19,300-foot oil platforms, many more offshore facilities, and 92 miles of pipeline) stretches over two-thirds of the California coastline, an area that is habitat for 29 species of endangered or threatened animals. Among these are the gray whale, green sea turtle, and southern sea otter.

Interior Department officials insist that no decisions has yet been made to go ahead with oil exploration off this portion of the California coast, and that conducting hearings and studying the matter does not "directly affect" the state.

"We're a year away from even holding an auction," says Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Heather Ross. "In the end, what the operator [oil company ] proposes, we may not concur with."

California counters that once the approval process is set in motion, the state should be playing a key role along with the federal agencies. State officials are sure that some of the most important environmental questions (possible effects of earthquakes, for example) cannot be answered before the lease sales are scheduled to be made a year from now.

All but four of California's 43 members of Congress have asked President Carter to overrule Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus and postpone the sale. So have California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and most local officials along the coast.

If the sale is not postponed, says California Coastal Commission executive director Michael Fischer, "We are quite likely to sue."

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