WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel said Thursday that he had few alternatives to the way he handled the now-unraveled offshore oil drilling compromise and contended that if California legislators refuse to meet with him in the future, "that's their loss."
In an interview, Hodel noted that although some critics have questioned whether he was naive in his actions, he believed that he was "sufficiently experienced" to have foreseen the controversy--and he predicted that his next proposal for drilling will ignite yet another storm.
Repeatedly alluding to himself as a marriage counselor trying to mediate a domestic dispute, Hodel sought to portray the animosity he has sparked in both industry and the environmental lobby as evidence that he has not taken sides.
'Nature of the Process'
"My job," he said, "is to try to remain relaxed . . . and recognize it's the nature of the process."
After the collapse of the agreement Tuesday, California legislators vowed to try to renew for one year the current moratorium on drilling off of most of the state's coast. On Thursday, action to extend the moratorium--scheduled to expire Sept. 30--was taken under a stopgap money bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee. The measure would lengthen the moratorium for 45 days.
The Interior secretary dismissed widespread speculation that he backed out of the original agreement with the California congressional delegation because of pressure from the White House--which, in turn, had been lobbied hard by the oil industry. The agreement, strongly opposed by industry, would have permitted limited drilling in exchange for putting most of the coast off-limits for 15 years.
Hodel said he kept the White House informed of his actions before and after the pact was reached, but that no one directed him toward any specific course.
Sees 'Base of Confidence'
"I've also tried to keep the vice president and his staff informed . . . and I really think there is a substantial base of confidence there that, in spite of what it may appear from the headlines, I have not lost my mind totally," he said.
"It just may not be something they would have done or relished doing, getting involved in a domestic squabble, but it's not inconsistent with the way I've approached life," he added. "I didn't ever have any illusions about winning a popularity contest."
Hodel said he has heard the preliminary agreement described as a "setup" orchestrated by California members of Congress who were "just hoping that the time would come when they would be in a position to say: 'Oh, well, this won't work. It's his fault. I'm going to the divorce court or out to buy a Saturday night special.' "
Hodel has said that he decided to reject the July 16 agreement after learning weeks later that the areas proposed for drilling contained little oil. Despite his critics' contention that he broke a promise, he maintains that he always considered the pact as a preliminary step to a permanent agreement.
The July 16 agreement would have allowed drilling off specified areas of the coast in exchange for a moratorium protecting nearly 98% of the state's offshore waters until the year 2000. Language to end the moratorium in the event of a national energy emergency was to be worked out before the pact was concluded.
Now, Hodel is expected to unveil a new proposal that would permit drilling in 150 tracts that would include areas in Santa Monica Bay, off Huntington Beach, in Bodega Bay, off Point Arena and in the Santa Cruz Basin. But some oil companies do not want any limit on drilling, he noted, adding that many of the new areas proposed seem certain to stir up new dissension among environmentalists and California lawmakers.
Although environmentalists hailed the House committee's 45-day extension of the offshore moratorium, Hodel said he does not believe that Congress will approve a full year's extension because it is unnecessary and unproductive. In any event, he said, the Interior Department does not plan new sales of offshore tracts for two years.
California Sen. Alan Cranston told reporters Thursday that he thought that the yearlong moratorium could sail through the Democratic-controlled House but he sounded less upbeat about chances of getting an extension through his own Republican-led chamber.
"We have a reasonable prospect of maintaining that moratorium (in the Senate,)" he said. "I make no promises."