Georges Bank oil search raises hopes -- and doubts

It's bigger than Massachusetts. It figures in the current dispute over fishign rights between the United States and Canada.

It produces 17 percent of the fish sold in markets in the United States, and 15 percent of the world's fish protein -- generating a $1 billion, 50,000 job industry.

And if an $800 billion gamble by the nation's oil industries, set to begin in earnest this spring or summer, pays off, it will spawn an even more profitable industry -- off-shore petroleum.

It's known as Georges Bank -- a fogbound swatch of sea 100 miles east of Cape Cod. Even the name is shrouded in mystery: it first shows up on maps about 1720 as "St. George's Bank," and no one seems to know how it got named after England's patron saint. A sunkem plateau about 200 miles long and 100 miles wide, it is one of the world's ecological oddities for several reasons:

* Depth. In places it is no more than 10 feet deep -- and if stories from the 19th century can be believed, it sometimes gets whipped by storms into island shoals where ship-wrecked crews have been known to play ball.

* Currents. The Gulf Stream waters flow around its perimeter in a unique clockwise pattern, providing an area of relative stillness in which objects washed overboard can float in the same general vicinity for up to six months.

* Fish. These two factors produce a sunwarmed environment where sea-floor nutriments are roiled up into the water. The result is an ideal spawning ground for fin- and shellfish. Larvae, in no danger of being swept away from their food source, grow abundantly.

So do the arguments over its use. In 1973, the Department of the Interior responded to the OPEC-inspired oil crunch by opening up vast new areas of America's continental shelf for off-shore exploration.

Their decision also opened up a fire- breathing conservation lobby of New Englanders concerned about the fish, the beaches, and the future of what many consider to be a unique and fairly fragile oceanic environment.

Resistance to the project came from fishermen (who feared that a sea-floor littered by sometimes-careless drilling contractors would snag their nets and reduce their catch) and from environmentalists (who harked back to the Santa Barbara spill in 1969 and the Bay of Campeche blowout off Mexico in 1979). Both sides worry that toxic substances from spills and drilling muds, which the bank's peculiar currents would not disperse, could destroy millions of larvae. And many landlubbers worry about globs of oil washing ashore on New England's famous (and tourist-rich) seacoast.

But the last of many court battles is now apparently over. The Department of the Interior, after some delay under the previous administration, has now agreed to set up a monitoring program long sought by environmentalists. And the fishermen and the oilmen, like the cattlemen and sheep farmers in an earlier American age, have agreed to see whether fish and oil can coexist. As they sit down together to hammer out a fair system of compensation should trawls run afoul of debris, the oil industry is preparing to weigh anchor in late spring or early summer. Its goal: to take a share of the 900 million barrels of oil and 4 .4 trilion cubic feet of gas which the US Geological Survey says may be there.

The project is formidible. The $800 million paid by oil companies for tract leases so far is just the beginning. A typical production platform (based on Gulf of Mexico figures) may cost between $15 million and $20 million -- with another $50 million thrown in for the actual drilling.

But the rewards to the nation and to Massachusetts are commensurately large. The commonwealth, with no indigenous energy resources except sunlight and trees, ships in all the gas and oil it uses. The transportation cost for gas, according to John Bewick, the state's environment secretary, is about $1.30 per 1,000 cubic feet. A gas find (the most likely discovery, say industry analysts) would be "the biggest benefit to the project," he told the Monitor, because it would "put Massachusetts at the front end of the pipeline."

A small find might be brought ashore in tankers after offshore liquefaction. But a large find could justify a pipeline, which would probably come ashore on Cape Cod (the closest landfall) and would need a processing plant (with its attendant jobs) somewhere in the Chatham area.

There is less certainty about the significance of an oil and to the state. The nation already has excess refining capacity, some of it as close as New Jersey. But state officials are eager to attract local capacity. "If they find oil off Georges Bank," state Economics Secretary George Kariotis said. "there's a good chance that you'll see a refinery built here." Commerce Commissioner James F. Carlin adds that "if a major oil company wanted to build a refinery here, we'd certainly help out."

Dr. Bewick, however, notes that the domestic oil industry is "not very enthusiastic" about such a project. But he points out that "some thought" has been given to attracting an oil-rich foreign country to invest in a refinery -- a move that would give it an outlet in this country and would give Massachusetts a lot of jobs.

To a lesser extent, the state may benefit from the onshore support activities -- the air transportation, catering, harborside, and fuel businesses, for example -- although many of these will center in Rhode Island.

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