SACRAMENTO — The state Lands Commission, siding with environmentalists and the state's fishing industry, voted unanimously Wednesday to stiffen environmental regulations for oil exploration off the California coast.
The decision, in effect, slaps a temporary moratorium on high-energy seismic tests, which the oil industry says are needed to search for offshore petroleum deposits but which fishermen and other opponents contend severely disturb fishing habitats and the ocean's delicate ecosystem.
Permits held by 19 oil companies and seismic testing firms expired last month. The commission's action requires extensive environmental studies before the testing operations can resume. The commission's jurisdiction, however, does not extend beyond the state's three-mile limit and therefore will have no effect on exploration in federal waters.
Because much data has already been accumulated on offshore oil deposits, the effect on the offshore oil industry by an immediate halt to seismic testing is largely unknown.
Nonetheless, oil industry executives accused commission members of falling victim to "anti-oil rhetoric."
Wednesday's vote was the fourth time in recent months that the three-member commission--driven by Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and state Controller Gray Davis--has voted against some aspect of offshore oil development.
In fact, McCarthy, who has intensified his campaign for the U.S. Senate in recent months, announced his vote on the seismic testing issue well before Wednesday's hearing, as he had for most of the earlier anti-oil votes cast by the commission.
Speaking during the hearing, McCarthy said he had no choice but to vote against testing because of recent studies indicating that it may be having a profound impact on the state's fishing industry.
"We are just three non-scientists on a state commission who are hearing a clash of scientific studies," McCarthy said.
Davis agreed, adding: "The fishing industry is important to California. It's important that the commission balance the benefits of testing against the hardships created on local fishermen before granting any new permits."
At issue is the use of high-energy air guns that send sonic waves onto the ocean floor. Results of the tests are picked up by instruments strung along a 2.5 mile-long cable. Environmentalists and fishing industry groups contend that the shock waves from those instruments cause fish to disburse and sometimes relocate to other areas.
Aside from oil exploration, the seismic tests are used in part to site pipelines and other offshore equipment and map earthquake faults.
Three years ago, the commission voted to exempt the seismic testing industry from the need to prepare environmental reports. But recent studies, according to the commission staff, indicate that the effect on marine life may be far more dramatic than earlier thought.
Industry executives and scientists, however, took issue with those studies, calling them inconclusive.
"There was no new information and our position is that there is no new information," said Thomas M. Morneau, attorney for Exxon Co.. The commission, Morneau added, "is simply reacting to conjecture. These are allegations of a small faction of the fishing industry. As a result, this decision is being pushed on the commission."
Much of the seismic testing has been concentrated off the coastal towns of Santa Barbara and Mendocino. However, the permits denied Wednesday were for the entire coastline.
Commission officials said it could take as long as a year before environmental studies are completed and the high-energy seismic tests can resume.