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Coast Panel Again Says No to Huge Oil Rig

September 10, 1986|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — On an 8-to-4 vote, the California Coastal Commission on Tuesday decisively reaffirmed its opposition to Platform Gail, a giant oil rig that Chevron Inc. wants to build in the Santa Barbara Channel near environmentally sensitive Anacapa Island.

The decisive margin was swung by three commission members who favored Chevron's application but who voted against approval because they felt the environmental conditions proposed by the state agency were too strict and costly.

Chevron officials said the decision will be appealed immediately to Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, who can override the Coastal Commission on such decisions in federally controlled waters.

The company will also file suit in federal court to challenge the commission's authority to restrict or regulate drilling on established outer continental shelf leases, said Clair Ghylin, head of the oil company's lands division.

Chevron had asked the commission to reconsider the issue after being turned down in July on a 6-6 vote. Tuesday's vote leaves Chevron with no place to put the $25-million skeleton of the giant platform, which is being towed in circles on a barge south of the Channel Islands--at a cost of $200,000 a day.

Chevron had the unit, which looks like a giant erector set, built in Japan and towed across the Pacific. It had hoped to win approval for its installation in 750 feet of water six miles north of Anacapa Island. The island, part of Channel Islands National Park, has the only permanent nesting colony of the endangered California brown pelicans.

The decision Tuesday sets the stage for what is expected to be a protracted legal battle over the commission's attempt to require unprecedented and costly additions to the drilling facilities to offset unavoidable environmental and navigational impacts.

During the hearing, two factions were in opposition to Chevron's attempt to develop the Sockeye Field's estimated 80 million barrels of oil, adjacent to the area's northbound shipping lanes and about nine miles off Port Hueneme.

As expected, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council protested that no matter how well built, Platform Gail would always pose a serious threat to the pelicans on Anacapa Island. An oil spill would have devastating effects on the birds, they warned, saying that the platform's proximity to the shipping lanes would increase such risks.

In addition to those who objected to the Chevron application for environmental reasons, three commissioners--Steve MacElvaine, Dorill B. Wright and Thomas J. McMurray--voted no Tuesday because of the costly steps Chevron was being required to take to mitigate environmental impacts and navigational hazards.

"This goes too far . . . the industry cannot live with these restrictions," Wright said.

Chevron, working with the commission staff, has agreed to equip the platform with the most sophisticated radar-warning devices available. It has also agreed to "offset" air pollution created by the platform development operation by purchasing or leasing 190 tons of air pollution "offsets." This, in effect, would eliminate other sources of air pollution in the Ventura County Air Basin in return for the pollution caused by Platform Gail.

"Setting standards so high that the next project that comes before us cannot afford to meet them is not in the national interest," MacElvaine declared. He had previously favored the project but said these new standards "were just too high to support."

MacElvaine tried without success to get the commission to reduce these standards, but his motion was voted down.

Just prior to the decisive vote, Chairman Michael Wornum--opposed to the project from the outset--warned that Chevron would certainly appeal. "It is a not a question of whether or not Platform Gail will be built, it's a question of whether or not we (the Coastal Commission) will have the mitigations that we have negotiated with Chevron," Wornum said.

Chevron's application has been supported by the Departments of Interior, Transportation, Defense and Commerce in line with the Reagan Administration push for the development of the nation's oil reserves.

Baldrige has overruled the state commission three times on similar offshore development issues. If Baldrige overturns Tuesday's Coastal Commission decision, as many observers believe he will, there are no guarantees that any of the commission's mitigations will be imposed, said William Grant, regional director of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, the primary federal regulatory agency in this case.

Grant said the state agency does not have the authority to require more navigational warning devices or to require Chevron to pay $150,000 to build recreational facilities for the National Park Service to offset the platform's visual impact on the park.

Both Grant and Chevron's Ghylin said that several federal government agencies will probably join with Chevron in the federal court suits to attempt to restrain or restrict the Coastal Commission's actions.

The commission, on the other hand, says that if Baldrige approves the platform but does not impose the mitigations Chevron has already agreed to, the state agency will sue to try to force the safeguards.

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