Offshore oil exploration battle: testing Watt's power

A federal appeals court here has flashed a caution signal at US Secretary of the Interior James Watt as he steams ahead with his program to open most of the nation's coastline to oil and gas exploration.

The Aug. 12 ruling reminded Secretary Watt that he must adhere to a federal law that requires offshore leasing plans to be consistent with state coastal management plans. But while upholding a lower court decision blocking lease sales of tracts off the coast of San Luis Opisbo County in California, the three-judge appeals panel noted that the law only requires oil leasing policy to be consistent with state coastal plans ''to the maximum extent practicable.''

It also indicated that the final judgement on consistency on at least one issue involved in this case is up to the Secretary of the Interior.

Up to now, Watt has been undaunted by a barrage of attempts - in the federal courts and Congress - to reduce his speed and alter his course.

Commenting on the recent ruling, Michael Fisher, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, explained that the complex federal law gives the final word to the US Secretary of Commerce on some coastal management decisions, but to the Interior chief on others.

California's position, Mr. Fisher says, is that Watt's leasing plan is inconsistent with the state's coastal management plan for the entire central-northern coast, beginning at Port San Luis north of Santa Barbara. South of that point, he indicated, the coastal commission is cooperating with Watt in the leasing process.

Several lawyers either involved in or familiar with the case told the Monitor they expect further court action on these points will be necessary.

Meanwhile, a broader court action against Watt's Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) plan is pending, as are several proposals in Congress to thwart the interior secretary's plans.

All this was precipitated when Watt rewrote a five-year lease sale plan announced in 1980 by President Carter's secretary of the interior, Cecil Andrus. In July 1981, Watt proposed a program for the 1982-86 period ''aimed at reducing our dependence on uncertain and costly foreign energy supplies. . . .'' His ''new, area-wide concept'' would, within five years, make available more than 1 billion acres on the OCS for oil exploration.

Cries of outrage by governors, state coastal zone commissions, local officials, and most of the major environmentalist organizations were quickly followed by the filing of court suits. Prominent plaintiffs include Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. of California, Gov. Jay Hammond of Alaska, Gov. Edward F. King of Massachusetts, the California Coastal Commission, the National Resources Defense Council, the Audubon Society, the Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club.

Responding last year to a congressional resolution, Secretary Watt withheld, at least temporarily, four areas off the California coast from his exploration plan. Two marine sanctuaries also have been excluded.

In Alaska, Governor Hammond said the state was returning to court to ''delay implementation of the sale schedule'' in the North Aleutian, Norton, and St. George basins, and the Barrow Arch. Sixteen lease sales are scheduled off Alaska - more than for any other state or region, and Hammond says he will try to delay sales in those areas.

''I have discussed our concerns with Secretary Watt on several occasions,'' he stated. ''Our discussions have been cordial, but I'm afraid that while the secretary has tried to address some of our concerns, we have remaining areas of disagreement where the potential impacts to Alaskans are so severe that we have to use all possible means to protect the state's interests.'' He indicated Alaska also will seek a larger share of oil revenue.

The only quarter from which no official dissent has issued is the Gulf Coast. Most of those states long ago embraced the production of oil and gas off their shores. Their only complaint has been over their share of oil profit.

Among initiatives in Congress aimed at stopping or changing the Watt OCS plan:

* A bill seeking a moratorium on exploration off the central and northern California coastline until the year 2000.

* A resolution that would prohibit the interior secretary from implementing his plan until the various objections have been dealt with.

* A plan to attach a rider to the appropriations bill for the Interior Department that would block any lease sales off northern California for a year, beginning Oct. 1.

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