ANACAPA ISLAND — Secretary of Interior Donald P. Hodel declined Wednesday to rule out future oil exploration in Santa Monica Bay but said state environmental concerns would "obviously" have to be settled first.
"I understand the concerns there," Hodel said during a daylong Southern California tour that took him to an offshore oil rig and this national park in the Santa Barbara Channel. "It seems to me it obviously is an area that is not going to be explored unless, and until, there are some issues resolved to the satisfaction of the state."
At the same time, Hodel repeated his call to Congress not to renew its oil- and gas-drilling moratorium in environmentally sensitive areas off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Santa Monica Bay has been included in the acreage covered by the moratorium, which is due to expire Oct. 1.
Throughout the day, Hodel seized every opportunity to assure state and local officials that the new five-year oil- and gas-leasing plan unveiled last month contained major shifts in federal leasing policy. He also pledged to closely consult with state governments as the proposed plan undergoes changes during the next two years, before it is scheduled to take effect.
Hodel clearly hopes that as the plan develops, congressional interest will wane in continuing the drilling moratorium that was first imposed after former Interior Secretary James Watt opened vast areas of the outer continental shelf to oil leasing.
Hodel's trip to California comes at a time, however, when state and local officials are divided over the Interior Department plan.
His reluctance Wednesday to spell out in advance what areas might be excluded from lease sales and his insistence on reviewing all possible lease areas on "a case-by-case basis" served to perpetuate old concerns among environmentalists and some state officials that areas such as Santa Monica Bay would be targeted for drilling.
Michael Fischer, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, said he remains skeptical about the Interior Department's plan.
"We were frankly stunned when those early exclusions (like Santa Monica Bay, Big Sur and areas off the Golden Gate near San Francisco) were not included (in the new plan)," Fischer said.
"We see the failure to include them in this step as a cynical political ploy," he continued. "They have proposed a straw man. It's more than they ever intended to propose and any compromise down from this straw man will make future proposals only seem more reasonable."
Others, however, viewed the plan more favorably.
California Environmental Affairs Secretary Gordon Duffy said the proposed five-year plan "reflects some environmentally helpful policy changes." He also reiterated his and Gov. George Deukmejian's opposition to a continuation of the drilling moratorium.