WASHINGTON — A 45-day extension of a 4-year-old moratorium on new, exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas off the California coast was approved today by the House Appropriations Committee.
The extension of the drilling moratorium was routinely incorporated in a continuing resolution intended to finance the Interior Department and a host of other federal agencies at current spending levels until Nov. 15.
The continuing resolution is needed because Congress has yet to approve regular appropriation bills for those agencies for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The committee action, if upheld by the House and Senate, will buy time for members of the California congressional delegation who want to write into law an aborted offshore drilling agreement they reached with Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel on July 16.
At a meeting Tuesday with the California legislators, Hodel in effect repudiated the preliminary agreement. It would have allowed limited exploratory drilling of 150 tracts off California--two-thirds of them in the Eel River Basin off the northern coast--in exchange for a drilling ban on 6,310 remaining undeveloped tracts until 2000, barring a national energy emergency.
An aide to Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), chief negotiator of the abandoned July 16 agreement, said a bill intended to turn that agreement into permanent legislation, despite Hodel's objections, may be introduced next week.
Hodel complained that Interior Department studies completed after the agreement was reached indicate that the 150 tracts contain only 5% to 7% of potential offshore petroleum reserves in California. He was reported to be preparing a revised list of 150 tracts whose potential yield would be much higher.
A group of local government officials from California coastal areas told a news conference today that Hodel's credibility was irreparably damaged by his rejection of the July 16 agreement, which they said virtually foreclosed the possibility of a renewal of negotiations over the issue.
Criticizing Hodel's "scandalous behavior," Gary A. Patton, chairman of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, said it was time to "say goodby to the Executive Branch and look to Congress for a solution to the problems the Executive Branch has created."
"We are not willing to go back and start over," said Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a consultant on the offshore drilling dispute to local governments along the California coast. "Congress has got to get it together. The only alternative is litigation, litigation and more litigation if the Interior Department begins leasing sales."
Robert F. Gentry, former mayor of Laguna Beach, said he and other local officials flew to Washington to lobby members of Congress when Hodel, during a tour of California last month, "began talking like an oil company executive."