A ranking Interior Department official, in a cross fire from the oil industry, conservationists and the governor, said Wednesday that there is no assurance that oil and gas leases off the Northern California coast will be sold in two years as scheduled.
In addition, plans to initiate the leasing process off the Southern California coast in May also may be delayed, Assistant Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles said.
"Anything can happen in this process as we move forward--both changes in market conditions, as well as changes in political horizons. . . ," Griles said. "If people were to say that in 1988 we'll be leasing the Northern California area, they could lose money, because I don't know that that will happen. We'll just have to see."
Griles' remarks during an interview came just two days after the Interior Department took the first step that could lead to oil and gas development in federal waters off Mendocino and Humboldt counties. The step--known as a call for information, in which oil companies are asked to nominate tracts to be considered for leasing in the area designated as Lease Sale 91--has come under fire from disparate quarters.
Conservationists have accused the department of opening vast stretches of the outer continental shelf to oil drilling. Gov. George Deukmejian has called it a "breach of faith" and is considering a lawsuit to delay the Northern California sale for a year, until the Interior Department's new five-year oil and gas development plan is submitted to Congress.
Griles noted on Wednesday, however, that Lease Sale 91 is already included in the current five-year plan.
The National Ocean Industries Assn., which represents equipment suppliers and other firms involved in drilling, called the action "a mockery," saying it arbitrarily limits the number of tracts to be considered for sale to just 229 of the 6,000 tracts off the Northern California coast. Adding to the protest was the Western Oil and Gas Assn., which said limiting the number of tracts would "make it difficult, if not impossible," to assess the extent of Northern California oil and gas reserves.
Griles acknowledged that the department's decision to eliminate some tracts before hearing from the oil companies was unusual, but he said that the 229 tracts that are included are thought to be promising, based on previous oil company interest and geologic studies.
In addition, he said limiting the areas will allow oil companies, state and local governments, conservationists and the public to concentrate their attention.
"We've tried to narrow the focus to the point where the debate will be a rational debate and not an emotional debate," Griles said.
Talks are continuing with the military on which Southern California tracts to exclude from the upcoming call for information for that area.