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Interior Dept. Plans 33 Offshore Oil Lease Sales, Including Pacific Coast

March 22, 1985|MICHAEL WINES | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department on Thursday proposed 33 new sales of offshore petroleum exploration leases between 1986 and 1991, including sales of undersea drilling rights in areas along virtually the entire Pacific Coast.

The leasing plan--the first since former Interior Secretary James G. Watt opened up the continental shelf to drilling in 1981--was quickly denounced by environmental groups as too broad and by oil industry spokesmen as too restrictive.

Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel, who has vowed to end an acrid dispute that began under Watt over drilling in ecologically sensitive areas, called the plan a "preliminary draft." He said that he expects "to eliminate wide areas in which environmental problems and other interests" are paramount before actual sales are conducted.

End to Bans Sought

Hodel has said that he hopes his attention to environmental concerns will persuade Congress to lift bans, imposed under Watt, on drilling in sought-after petroleum fields off the California and Atlantic coasts.

The new Interior proposal slows the pace of sales in most offshore areas from once every two years to once every three years. The reduction, Hodel said, reflects the current slack demand for oil products and the probability that oil prices will rise slowly in the near future.

However, the plan would continue annual sales in the productive Gulf of Mexico and allow yearly "supplemental" sales in selected other areas. It would also allow speedier sales in areas where industry interest is high--such as the California coast--"should economic conditions or new geologic data warrant."

Under the proposed leasing schedule, sales off the Southern California coast would be held in April, 1986; Northern California sales would be held in December, 1987, and Central California sales in May, 1989. Drilling rights off Oregon and Washington, which have not been offered for 27 years, would be sold in 1991.

Some Skeptical of Pledge

Environmental experts and some California legislators said that they were skeptical of Hodel's pledge to conduct what he called a "moderate" leasing program. Some said that they would press to continue drilling moratoriums in ecologically sensitive areas.

Andrew Palmer, a coastal lands expert for the Environmental Policy Institute, said that the Hodel proposal appears to be "essentially the same program we had under Watt, with a few refinements."

"The clear message in this is that those who want (sensitive drilling tracts) out are going to have to fight like hell," he said. "While we'll be anxious to talk to Mr. Hodel, I think we're going to try to protect those areas now."

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said that the Interior Department "still has its foot on the accelerator" and that he would propose legislation to ban drilling for 15 years in sensitive areas off the California coast.

But the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, argued that the Hodel proposal could end the unrestricted "areawide" leasing policies begun by Watt and slow the pace of sales.

Return to Tracts Seen

"Our initial concern is that we see sales every three years instead of every two," said Stephen P. Chamberlain, the institute's director of exploration. "It looks as if perhaps this is the first step in going back to tract-selection sales, which is what had delayed exploration . . . for so many years."

Prior to Watt's administration, the Interior Department had offered only selected tracts of promising offshore lands for lease instead of opening up large areas of ocean floor for bidding.

The Hodel proposal again postpones lease sales in potentially valuable ocean basins off the Central and Northern California coasts that have not been explored since 1963, Chamberlain complained. The Interior Department had earlier proposed to sell leases next January.

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