Tide turns in favor of oil seekers

Fifteen years ago next weekend, a blowout at an offshore oil well sloshed crude onto Santa Barbara beaches for weeks. It was the nation's first major oil spill, and it invigorated the ecology movement across the country.

Now, it appears, the momentum belongs to the oil industry.

California environmentalists say their power to protect waters off the coast, and therefore the coastland itself, was weakened by the recent United States Supreme Court ruling that prevents states from hindering federal offshore lease sales for oil and gas exploration.

But the tide had long since turned in favor of the oil seekers.

Santa Barbara County has become the unwilling witness to an oil boom. Recent discoveries offshore in the Santa Maria Basin indicate the largest American deposit of oil reserves south of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay.

The high court gave new impetus to the oil industry's aims when it ruled that the California Coastal Commission cannot block the leasing of drilling rights in federal waters. The leasing itself is not environmentally threatening, the court said. The effect of the decision is to keep the state at bay until a later stage in the development process, before actual drilling for exploration and production begins.

But at this later stage, says coastal commission chief counsel Roy Gorman, the commission's power becomes less ''politically practical.''

''It's very hard to derail a project when someone has spent a lot of money on it and a lot of time,'' he says. Oil companies are likely to fight much harder to pursue drilling rights when they have already spent money on a lease.

The dispute that took this issue to the Supreme Court involved 29 tracts on the outer continental shelf north of Santa Barbara county. These tracts were among those put up for lease in 1981 by the Interior Department. But drilling and development in these waters, the state coastal commission said, would threaten marine life in a nearby estuary, especially the endangered California sea otter.

There are about 80 million barrels oil and 70 billion cubic feet of gas beneath those 29 tracts, according to Interior Department estimates.

The state tried to take those tracts out of the sale offering, but since the tracts were in federal waters and outside the three-mile limit, the federal government offered them anyway.

Oil companies paid $220 million for 17 of those tracts, and the state sued the government to stop the leases.

Although the state has lost its case, the oil companies remain cautious. A spokesman for the Atlantic Richfield Company, which has interests in 11 of the 17 leases, expects state environmental planners to drive the same hard bargains they have in the past. ''And we still believe there will be attempts to nullify the court decision through legislation,'' the spokesman says.

US Rep. Leon Panetta, a Democrat from up the coast at Monterey, has already begun drafting a bill that would give states more clearly defined powers over the federal waters off their shores.

If the Panetta bill should become law, it would not affect the 17 leases now being issued, but only future lease offerings.

As it stands now, oil companies still cannot even float a drilling ship for an exploratory well without submitting a plan first to the Interior Department, then the state, for consistency with state standards.

The disadvantage to this, from a state standpoint, is that the coastal commission is reduced to weighing projects one at a time as drilling and development proceed, rather than planning the environmental impact of whole areas at a time.

At best, it will be five to seven years before any wells drilled in the 17 disputed tracts produce oil, because of bureaucratic red tape and the rigors of offshore drilling work.

It is not a foregone conclusion that the state block any drilling there, says Mr. Gorman, but ''the lessees know there will be significant questions.''

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