Compromise -- for now -- on California offshore oil leases

Recently discovered off the coast of California: lots of oil, some gas, and perhaps a bit of compromise.

The appropriations bill signed by President Reagan Dec. 20 gives US Interior Secretary James Watt funds for leasing certain outer continental shelf (OCS) tracts to oil companies. But it excludes some two-thirds of the California coast - from Morro Bay to the Oregon line.

After a House-Senate conference committee agreed to the limitation last week, the Interior Department issued a statement: ''We are delighted at the conference committee action, particularly with respect to the Santa Maria Basin off California. The conferees have wisely chosen to bring the entire basin into the scope of leasing and drilling.'' (Recent successful test wells indicate a giant oil field in the Santa Maria Basin.)

Michelle Perrault, vice-president for conservation of the Sierra Club and chairwoman of the Coalition to Stop Lease Sale 73, said: ''Stopping the appropriation for leasing from Morro Bay to the Oregon border gives us some time. But it's only for the fiscal year - until next Oct. 1.''

Mrs. Perrault says the coalition seeks permanent protection of the northern California OCS against oil exploration and development. She cites potential danger to migrating whales and other sea life, the sensitivity of the near-shore and tidelands environments, and adverse impact on tourism and commercial fishing , the economic mainstays of coastal communities.

The coalition - comprised of national and local environmental groups, representatives of local governments, and some state officials - will push hard for passage of a proposal by US Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California to ban oil lease sales off the state's north coast until the year 2000.

Ed Essertier, an Interior Department spokesman, told the Monitor that the department has taken no position on the Panetta bill. ''Secretary Watt's plans don't go beyond 1987,'' he notes. Nor has the secretary decided yet whether to seek money in the next fiscal year to conduct lease sales off northern California.

At the moment, Mr. Essertier indicates, the Interior Department is well satisfied to be able to offer most OCS tracts in the apparently oil-rich Santa Maria Basin for lease in a sale scheduled for September. He points out that even before the recent discoveries in that basin, Secretary Watt had agreed to exempt four specific northern California coastal basins - Eel River, Bodega, Point Arena, and Santa Cruz - from lease sale No. 73. ''He didn't feel the resource potential of the tracts was great enough to continue the battle we were having on it,'' says Essertier, adding: ''As far as the area in the north, it really is not going to be that big a thing.''

A bigger ''thing'' may be another area that now is in litigation between Interior and the environmental coalition. Lying at the northern end of the Santa Maria Basin, the offshore area between Morro Bay and Pismo Beach is a major habitat for sea otters. According to Mrs. Perrault, oil exploration activites may already have diminished the otter population.

In August, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Interior should not have leased tracts in the Santa Maria Basin without preparing determinations of consistency with the California coastal zone management plan under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act.

While it now is preparing an environmental impact statement on lease sale No. 73, including a study of the sea otter habitat, the Interior Department has asked the US Department of Justice to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court.

Mark Palmer, president of the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club, says environmentalists are resigned, if not reconciled, to the development of the oil field in the Santa Maria Basin.

One exception is a tract near the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary near Santa Barbara where the Union Oil Company wants to drill a test well. Although denied a permit by the California Coastal Commission, the company is seeking to get around that by invoking a ''grandfather clause'' that appears to grant the right to drill if a permit is issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The coastal commission has filed suit to block such action.

The state coastal commission, which has become a key agency in the state-federal process of exploiting offshore resources while protecting local and environmental interests, may itself be an ''endangered species.''

Incoming Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who wants the state to sell tidelands oil leases, has vowed to do away with the state coastal commission.

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