WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday that he is "not embarrassed" by the collapse of the California offshore oil drilling accord and believes that critics are "not being honest" in characterizing his handling of the pact.
After the subcommittee hearing, he said he will set up new talks aimed at reaching another agreement and will include members of Congress from outside California--a proposal that seems certain to further anger the already-incensed members of the California delegation who supported the original plan.
Hodel told the panel that he had doubts about the original agreement from the start but did not realize that it was unworkable until public hearings on it were under way in California.
Reminded by others that he had called it a "landmark" agreement when it was unveiled July 16, Hodel said: "I did say very favorable things about the agreement, because it was hoped we could bring it to fruition."
With his wife seated beside him, Hodel listened to two hours of mostly critical testimony about himself before the House subcommittee on merchant marine and fisheries.
Afterward, Hodel said his staff next week will provide congressional staff members with a new list of 150 tracts with high energy-producing potential. One Interior Department official said the new list includes only 14 of the tracts designated in the original agreement, most or all of them off the Eel River Basin in Northern California.
A new agreement might set a ceiling of 150 tracts that could be drilled at any one time, but would allow oil companies the flexibility of moving to different tracts in prescribed areas, the official said.
Several members of the California delegation have vowed to seek another one-year moratorium on drilling off the state's coast or to push through legislation containing a modified version of the original agreement.
"We're in the process right now of counting some noses" to determine which option to pursue, said Jim Burroughs, an aide to California Sen. Pete Wilson.
At the hearing, Hodel heard himself criticized by some legislators for entering into the offshore agreement in the first place and by others for having broken the pact. But several members indicated that they are willing to begin new talks.
California Rep. Douglas H. Bosco (D-Occidental), who supported the pact, said he was "extremely disappointed and embarrassed over the debacle" of the collapse of the agreement. He noted that he and others put "a lot of political capital on the line" by helping to establish it.
Under the agreement, 99 of the 150 tracts that could have been drilled were off Bosco's district, which has lost a number of lumber industry jobs in recent years and had hoped that oil drilling might fill the unemployment gap. But Bosco said he remains hopeful that an agreement could be resurrected through negotiations.
Subcommittee members from Texas and Louisiana, whose coastal waters now produce the bulk of the nation's offshore energy, complained that Californians are selfishly placing their interests over the energy needs of the nation. They also complained that the opposition to drilling is costing jobs in inland states where oil drilling equipment is manufactured.
Supporters of the agreement countered that it was backed by both California senators and by 70% of the state's congressional delegation. Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) noted that coastal tourism in California brings the state more than $16 billion annually and commercial fishery yields almost $2 billion. Statewide, he said, the hotel and restaurant industries employ almost 20 times more workers than do oil exploration businesses.
"Parts of the Big Sur and Mendocino coasts are as valuable to this country as a Yosemite or a Yellowstone National Park," he said.
But Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) said he is glad that the agreement--which would have slapped a 15-year drilling moratorium over most of the coast--had collapsed. He said he opposed the pact not only because it called for more drilling off the shores of his district but also because those sites would not have produced much oil.