AT this time last year, Californians were up in arms over the thought that by 1989 their dizzyingly beautiful northern coast would be offered to the highest bidder for oil and gas rights. Instead, simply by power of executive fiat, President Bush has now removed these waters from the auction block, at least for another year. The President's action last week is a bow to one of the most contentious and enduring of all America's environmental issues: offshore oil drilling.
For more than 20 years it's a subject that has remained foremost in California's collective consciousness - from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill to last year's rancorous public hearings about the north-coast auction. Indeed, public sentiment here against expanded offshore drilling was running so strong last year that Mr. Bush, hoping to capture California in the presidential election, finally promised to reexamine the issue.
Experts say Bush's decision to ``indefinitely postpone'' a total of three offshore sales signals a more cautious approach to oil and gas development in federal waters. But most agree it's too soon to tell whether the President will chart a course that is much different from the Reagan administration's ambitious offshore plans that so enraged environmentalists - or whether he is simply fulfilling a campaign pledge.
``The ship has been sailing on one course, and now Bush has thrown it into neutral,'' says Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, a longtime drilling foe. ``But where's the new course? He could still go back to the old one, or he could start something new.''
Oil-industry representatives, for their part, are confident a year-long study on the three sales - two off the California coast and one near the Florida Keys - will reveal that oil and gas operations there are environmentally safe.
The two California sales ``have already experienced a long series of delays totaling six or seven years,'' says Bob Getts of the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry trade group. ``It's important to note that these areas represent the nation's most promising oil and gas reserves in the Lower 48 [states] - on either land or sea.''
Nonetheless, Bush apparently is prepared to pay the price for the postponements. With only eight offshore sales set for next fiscal year, instead of 11, revenue from the program is projected to drop almost by half (from $953 million to $496 million). Next to the income tax, the offshore sales program is the biggest contributor to the federal Treasury.
The arguments for and against offshore drilling haven't changed much since the birth of the controversy two decades ago. Oil companies have long maintained that America's energy security depends upon exploration and development of new oil and natural gas reserves - and they have consistently advocated drilling in federal waters and on public lands. Offshore drilling, they note, now supplies about 15 percent of all domestic oil production, and 25 percent of all domestic natural gas.
Since the 1986 collapse of world oil prices, the US oil industry has adopted a new tone of urgency. It points to consumers' rising demand for gasoline, noting that America's dependence on foreign oil is nearing the record high of 1977, when imported oil supplied 48 percent of US demand.
Conservation groups, however, argue it is folly to risk damaging environmental treasures - such as California's stunning north coast or Florida's Everglades - until the US develops a sensible energy policy. They continue to urge the federal government to provide incentives for energy conservation and for developing alternative energy sources.
In the current gasoline-rich climate, environmentalists appear to be making some headway. Once the purview of Californians, the public's concern about offshore drilling has spread in recent years to New England, Florida, and the Carolinas. This concern, in turn, has surfaced in Congress, which throughout the 1980s voted to block key lease sales - in defiance of the Reagan administration's efforts to expand offshore development.
Although oil representatives were largely disappointed with Bush's decision to postpone the three offshore sales, the President's budget address to Congress last week also contained some good news for the oil industry. In it, Bush reaffirmed his commitment to developing oil and gas reserves on public lands, singling out Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The congressional debate over drilling in the refuge is expected to be one of the hottest environmental battles of the year.