California Oil Spill Rekindles Debate on Prevention, Drilling

THE big oil spill off the southern California coast will likely harden opposition to offshore drilling and bring calls for greater regulation of tanker traffic. Environmentalists and some of the state's top politicians were quick to jump on the accident, in which 250,000 gallons of crude spilled from a ruptured tanker off the coast of Huntington Beach, as a ``wake-up call'' that California is not prepared to handle a major oil spill.

Even though the mishap involved a tanker and not a drilling rig, they view it as a cautionary tale of the risks involved in having too much oil activity off a heavily populated coast. They are renewing their call for a permanent ban on offshore drilling.

At the same time, some would like to see fewer tankers plying California's waters and tighter controls over those that do.

``Tankers should be controlled the same way airplanes are at the airport,'' says Bob Hattoy of the southern California office of the Sierra Club.

The maneuvering comes as crews work to contain the damage from the spill that occurred Wednesday when the hull of the tanker American Trader was ripped open, apparently by its own anchor, while moored two miles off Huntington Beach.

More than a quarter-million gallons of British Petroleum-owned crude was disgorged in the accident that now threatens large areas of the southern California coast. The area includes some of the nation's most popular beaches. British Petroleum has assumed responsibility for the spill and hired a private contractor to assist government cleanup efforts, United States Coast Guard officials said.

By early Thursday the first oil was washing up on the sands at Huntington Beach, the nation's ``surfing capital,'' 30 miles south of here. Currents were carrying a two-mile-long slick south, toward Newport Beach. Coast Guard officials were concerned that the slick would reach a 1,900-acre state preserve that is home to thousands of birds, including two endangered species. Coast Guard officials expected the crude would foul Huntington City Beach, Huntington State Beach, and Bolsa Chica State Beach. Experts expect the heavy Alaskan crude to dissipate as it moves down the coast.

Cities in the path of the slow-moving crude have laid booms to protect estuaries and harbors. Huntington Beach and Orange County declared states of emergency so they would be eligible for cleanup funds.

While the spill was far smaller than the Exxon Valdez debacle of a year ago (11 million gallons), it is considered a ``major'' spill by the Coast Guard.

Ironically, the tanker accident occurred on the same day the US House of Representatives approved, 376 to 37, a nonbinding resolution requiring all tankers that call at US ports to have double hulls. The provision is part of a House oil-spill liability bill that would set requirements for financing and managing oil-spill cleanups. The House-Senate conference committee is expected to begin work immediately on a compromise bill that both houses can approve before the March 24 anniversary of the Exxon-Valdez tanker spill.

The demand for more changes is likely to rise. President Bush is expected to decide soon whether he wants to open new areas off the California and Florida coasts to oil drilling.

A one-year moratorium is in effect now. Environmentalists and some lawmakers, including much of the California congressional delegation, would like to see the ban permanently enshrined.

``This illustrates ... that there should not be offshore drilling,'' proclaimed US Sen. Pete Wilson (R) of California shortly after the spill.

Other lobbying will be going on in Sacramento. Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy (D) argues the accident underscores the need for an oil-spill prevention measure now before the state Legislature that, among other things, would impose stiff penalties on those responsible for spills.

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