Environmentalists and members of California's congressional delegation were scheduled to meet today to plan for the future, after a major defeat in their efforts to lock up most of California's coastline from offshore energy development. The House Appropriations Committee refused last week to renew a moratorium on oil and gas exploration off the coast of California. With a 27-to-26 vote, committee members stunned proponents of the moratorium by reversing a policy that, for the past four years, has blocked the search for fossil fuels in federal waters off most of the state's coast.
The vote is as much a major setback for conservationists as it is a triumph for the Reagan administration, which has labored intensively to increase energy development in that area. Indeed, Secretary of the Department of the Interior Donald P. Hodel lauded the vote saying it ``enables America to proceed with an orderly and environmentally sound program'' of energy development.
Yet conservation groups, as well as California lawmakers, have long argued that the administration has not been adequately considering environmental factors when formulating its plans for offshore development. The moratorium, first instituted in 1981, has essentially been their trump card in the long and sometimes agonizing negotiations over the future of California's coast.
The moratorium's renewal has been subject to unusual attention over the past few months. Early this summer, California congressmen reached a tentative agreement with Secretary Hodel on energy development of some 150 tracts off California's coast. The deal unraveled, however, and lawmakers in Washington and California have been pushing hard for a renewal of the moratorium ever since.
``It's critical to our position; it gives us a level playing field with the secretary,'' says Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California, of the moratorium's role in negotiating with Hodel. ``This is a major, serious blow to our efforts.''
But the Californians have not given up. Representative Panetta and Rep. Mike Lowry (D) of Washington have introduced a bill that would legislate the preliminary agreement reached with Hodel. The bill would allow drilling in less than 3 percent of the area now covered by the moratorium, and place the rest of the area off-limits to development for the rest of the century. Meanwhile, Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California says he will push the proposal to extend the moratorium to a vote by the full House, perh aps as early as next week.
``This is only the beginning, we'll be making lots of noise now,'' Representative Lowry says. Monday's meeting will settle the details of how the noise is to be made, he adds.