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Oil War II : California Won the First Round. But Interior Secretary Donald Hodel Believes That Next Time the Ending Will Be Quite Different.

October 18, 1987|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

FROM INSIDE, AN offshore oil-drilling platform looks like a combination aircraft carrier and moon base. The crew walks around on catwalks high over the water and moves among the five main levels on steep, vertiginous stairs. Below the twin drilling towers and helicopter pad, the platform is a Mad Max landscape of pipes, valves, tanks, drums, condensers, scrubbers, separators and pumps. Unlike the Art Deco contours of hydroelectric turbines, there's nothing aesthetically pleasing about the arrangement of piping and machinery on an oil platform, and even with a guided tour, one despairs of making sense of its random, Erector Set design. Everywhere there is the whine, throb and whir of motors, generators, turbines and fans, intermingled with the shipboard smells of diesel exhaust and lubricating oil. Overhead, one hears the rhythmic thub-thub-thub of arriving helicopters. And just beneath the bottommost catwalk, one can see gentle westerly swells swirling and eddying around a thick, black crust of mussels on the platform's massive legs.

This is Texaco's Platform Harvest, a just-completed offshore drilling platform at the north end of the Santa Barbara Channel, seven miles southwest of Point Arguello. It goes into operation this December and has an anticipated life span of 30 years. At full production, it will yield 40,000 barrels a day. In the crew rec room, the color TV runs around the clock. And across the passageway, in the platform's warm and crowded crew mess, production supervisor Vern Rockhold sits quietly behind a fearsome row of bottles of Tabasco, Pickapeppa and Red Rooster hot sauce, methodically attacking a small roast chicken.

Rockhold is a genial, bulky, basset-jowled man who alternates between a week on the platform and a week at his Big Sur home, where he raises fruit trees and worries about his water supply. When a visitor wonders if Rockhold's neighbors ever ask why he's drilling for oil off the California coast, Rockhold says that, generally, the subject never comes up. But when it does, he says, he simply tells the truth: "That's where the oil is."

The Coming Storm

IT HASN'T HIT most Americans yet, U.S. Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel told Jane Pauley on the "Today" show last February, but another oil crisis is "almost a certainty." It's not readily apparent now because supplies are abundant and gas is cheap but, by Hodel's estimate, Americans will be sitting in gas lines again "within two to five years." This is because, says Hodel, the United States is importing 44% of its oil, more than in 1973, when the OPEC embargo was imposed. At the rate we're going, Hodel says, "in two to five years this nation will be 50% or more dependent on imported oil, (whereupon) the hawkish members of OPEC will conclude that they've got us where they want us, and they will seek to raise the price. Then our Congress will almost inevitably decide to fix the price to hold prices down." And the result will be shortages and gas lines.

The only way to prevent another energy crisis, says Hodel, is full exploration and development of the only two places in the United States with large oil reserves--Alaska and offshore California. The problem, says Hodel, is that in California, many people "don't want any drilling at all." Ever since the beginning of the Reagan Administration, they've stymied the Interior Department with one moratorium after another. And the result is that most leasing off the California coast has been shut down cold.

After Hodel took office in February, 1985, he and members of California's congressional delegation negotiated a tentative compromise agreement to protect the coast while still allowing limited oil drilling. But in September, 1985, Hodel rejected the plan as "not in the national interest." Neither side was able to agree on a new drilling plan. And a year ago last summer, Congress passed a bill putting off further lease sales until the next Administration.

Although Hodel tried to put the best face on all of this, environmentalists maintain that he suffered a stinging personal defeat: He had come into office planning to drill up and down the coastline, they say. Now he is going out of office, at the end of the Reagan Administration, without having leased so much as a single drilling tract off the California coast.

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