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State to Help Cities Fight Oil Firms' Suit Over Coast Drilling

September 24, 1987|LEO C. WOLINSKY | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The State Lands Commission, in another attempt to slow the pace of offshore oil development, voted in closed session Wednesday to join the legal defense of 13 coastal cities and counties that have been sued by oil producers over local restrictions to drilling.

The decision to intervene in the lawsuit, which came on a 2-1 vote of the commission, drew immediate criticism from an oil industry spokesman, who characterized it as an attempt to halt "any kind of offshore oil development."

In announcing the action, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, the commission's chairman, said the state had no choice because of a "direct threat" to local and state control posed by the industry's lawsuit.

"The people who live in these coastal communities have a very clear right to be participants in these very critical decisions," McCarthy said. "What we are talking about here are enormous physical impacts on this coast necessitated by the decision to go forward with offshore oil drilling."

Wednesday's vote was the third time in the last four months that the three-member commission has moved against offshore oil development. In each case, the actions were supported by its Democratic members--McCarthy and state Controller Gray Davis--and opposed by state Finance Director Jesse Huff, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian's representative.

The commission's jurisdiction extends to the state's three-mile territorial waters and to some coastal tidelands areas. But its members had generally avoided confrontations with the oil industry until Davis became a commission member in January and joined forces with McCarthy.

The commission's first action came in late May when it turned down an Atlantic Richfield proposal to build oil platforms in the ocean off Santa Barbara and, in effect, declared a moratorium on platform construction within three miles of the entire California coast. The de facto moratorium, which will remain in effect until a study of offshore drilling can be completed, prompted Arco to file a $795-million claim against the commission and Santa Barbara County.

Then, last month, the commission voted to file suit against the U.S. Interior Department's plan to permit oil drilling off the California coast. The drilling plan calls for consideration after February, 1989, of leases on 1,120 offshore tracts.

Wednesday's vote was directed at possible onshore environmental problems caused by exploration and drilling in federal waters.

In recent years, cities and counties--including San Diego, San Francisco, Monterey and San Luis Obispo--enacted ordinances to prevent construction of various facilities used to support offshore drilling, including marine terminals and oil pipelines.

There are about 50 offshore oil leases in state waters now. About 23 of those are currently in production, according to a spokesman for McCarthy.

In its lawsuit filed early last month, the Western Oil and Gas Assn., which represents 60 oil companies, maintained that the local laws threaten the nation's energy sufficiency and are unconstitutional because they infringe upon the federal government's authority to manage its resources.

After Wednesday's vote, Craig Hume, a Western Oil and Gas spokesman, denied McCarthy's accusation that the oil industry suit was an attempt to circumvent local authority.

"We're not saying that local governments should have their rights to enact zoning laws taken away," Hume said. "But it's a question of balance. . . . If the vast majority of California cities were to enact similar ordinances, it would, in fact, create a wall from the Mexican border to the Oregon state line blocking development of oil in the outer continental shelf."

McCarthy acknowledged that cities and counties do not have "the right to an absolute veto" over drilling in federal waters. But he said that residents of coastal towns "have a very clear right" to make decisions about oil facilities placed on land.

Huff, who cast the sole vote against intervening in the lawsuit, said it is not appropriate for the state "to take sides" in what is essentially "an argument between the Western Oil and Gas Assn. and the 13 local governments."

"I think there are a lot of very complex issues and ramifications to this situation," Huff said. "I think the state ought to tailor its actions to the best interests of all Californians."

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