Will Reagan unleash offshore oil rush?

Offshore oil drilling and President-elect Ronald Reagan: Put the two together and what do you get? Officially, the forthcoming Reagan administration has yet to make that answer clear. But already the prospect of Mr. Reagan in the White House is sending ripples of hope through the oil industry -- and causing anxiety in the environmental community.

"Sure it's an area of concern," confides one Sierra Club activist, who adds ruefully, "My only concern is not letting them know how scared we are."

Not all conservationists express such alarm. There are even those activists who, critical of the Carter administration's record on offshore oil drilling, contend that things can't get any worse with Reagan in the Oval Office -- and may even get better.

Overall, however, the mood among environmentalists is one of concern. They fret that the next four years may bring a weakening of current environmental regulations on drilling. And they worry that offshore oil development may be sped up in advance of the industry's ability to drill safely -- a charge that oil company spokesmen consistently deny.

"We expect more of a challenge in the area of outer continental shelf leasing from the Reagan administration than we've ever had," says Frances Beinecke, an environmental planner with the National Resources Defense Council.

"There is no question that this is one of the key programs that [Reagan advisers] will go after," she claims.

A review of Reagan's record as governor of California shows he was far from being an environmental ogre. And, when quizzed last month about the President-elect's plans for offshore oil drilling, top Reagan aide Edwin Meese III told reporters, "We'll have to wait and see. . . .

"We will be looking to the advisory committee on energy for recommendations on how to balance the competing objectives -- how to balance environmental preservation, which has a high priority for him [Reagan], and getting out the resources," Mr. Meese said.

Still, the concerns of many environmentalists are not assuaged. They cite the numerous occasions that Reagan, while campaigning, voiced his belief that the energy crisis could be solved simply by drilling for more domestic oil.

Specifically, conservationists say they worry that with Reagan as chief executive, these things might happen:

* A rewriting of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Passed in 1954 and amended only once (in 1978), this act regulates the how, what, where, and when of offshore oil drilling.

With Reagan in the White House and the Republicans minding the Senate, environmentalists say they expect oil industry lobbyists will push hard for amendments to the act that would ease current regulations.

* A speeding up of oil lease sales. Under a five-year plan released last June by outgoing Secretary of the Interior Cecil B. Andrus -- and already being challenged in court by disgruntled environmentalists -- 33 sales are scheduled to take place between 1981 and 1985 for drilling sites off the coasts of California, Alaska, Georgia, the Carolinas, and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although some activists contend that the lease sales process is booked as full as it possibly can be, others speculate that Reagan may slice into administrative guidelines and step up the frequency of sales. An accelerated timetable, these activists say, might be the basis of a second five-year plan to be drawn up soon for sales in the years 1985-1990.

* An end to exemptions and mitigations. Despite their frequent criticisms of and frustrations with the Carter administration, environmentalists were occasionally successful in convincing federal officials to exempt environmentally sensitive ocean tracts from drilling -- or, in some cases, to win tightened restrictions on drilling in leased tracts.

"With Andrus and Carter, we had a possibility of reducing the number of leases," says Ellen Sidenberg, director of Get Oil Out, a Santa Barbara, Calif., environmental group formed after the huge 1969 oil spill there.

"But I don't see any chances at all in a Reagan administration of holding any leases back," she adds. "I think they'll all go now."

There are exceptions to these general concerns, however. In Alaska, particularly, where there is widespread discontent with the federal government on environmental issues, some activists are hoping that Reagan may prove to be a blessing.

As Margie Gibson, Alaska representative for Friends of the Earth, notes, there is hope that Reagan will follow through on his pledge to return power to the state level. In Alaska, where Gov. Jay Hammond has disapproved of some offshore drilling, such authority could mean a partial crackdown on lease sales that the oil industry now eyes impatiently.

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