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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.

But Hodel says it is the opponents of offshore drilling who are swimming against a historic tide. California's outer continental shelf holds an estimated 2 million to 5 million barrels. Another oil crisis is coming, he says, and when it arrives the rest of the country is going to turn on California. "The biggest mistake my opponents are making, in my estimation--and it's unfortunate because they aren't the ones who are going to suffer--is creating an atmosphere in which there is a perception that vast resources are being locked away," Hodel says. "The real risk is that in a crisis, if these areas are blocked off, Americans will demand that we proceed in some kind of mad rush to go see what is there. I keep pointing out that any society that will take the Japanese like we did in World War II and incarcerate them simply because they were Japanese is not above throwing its environmental concerns out the window when it thinks its interests are being jeopardized."

Already, he says, many people tend to regard Californians as rich, arrogant and more worried about ocean views than about the fact that in the Persian Gulf "we have soldiers under the gun trying to protect their oil supply. The risk the (opponents) run, of course, is that by the time they've got a sufficient oil-supply problem or price problem, the new secretary, no matter which party is in power and no matter what promises the Democratic presidential candidate may make, will say, 'My gosh. We have 200 million people in jeopardy and a million people or 500,000 people who will be outraged if we do this. That isn't even close.' "

Hodel on Environmentalists

IT'S A HOT, humid afternoon last July, and Don Hodel is taking a two-day vacation and inspec tion trip down the Colorado River in eastern Utah. He has an appealingly informal manner, and as he bobs along in his faded blue shorts and sopping-wet sneakers at the head of a five-raft flotilla, the river guides quickly drop the "Mr. Secretary" stuff and begin to call him Don. It's appropriate. There's an aspect of Eagle Scout to his personality anyway. He sprinkles his conversation with words like super, gosh, nifty and neat . He has what one newspaper called "dark and mobile eyebrows" and a lean and wiry frame. It's easy to see how he progressed from being an obscure Oregon lawyer to being secretary of Interior: He brings an almost alarming energy to everything he does. The first time the raft encounters white water, he slips overboard and rides the rapids in his life vest. Through other rapids, he stands in the front of the raft like Washington crossing the Delaware. At the end of the day, while most members of his party are content to sit quietly around while the crew prepares dinner, he climbs the base of a nearby ridge to get a closer look at a vertical slab of sheared rock. Later, he flags down some passing kayakers and spends the better part of an hour practicing capsizing recovery techniques. During quiet stretches on the river he marvels at flocks of Canada geese on the banks, golden eagles soaring along the canyon rim, cliff swallows and the grandeur of the river canyon's 500-foot-high red sandstone walls. "Look at those cliffs," he says. "I'm glad we came. Can't you just feel everything drop away?"

Actually, not quite everything drops away. Every so often he sees something that reminds him of his chief adversaries these days--those environmentalists (he calls them "preservationists") who, in his view, want to freeze nature for all time exactly as it is now. When the raft passes ancient tar seepages high up the face of the cliff, he jokes about including a line item in his next budget for sandblasting the cliffs clean and installing steel pins to restrain loose rock, lest sometime in the next eon or two it fall into the river without prior authorization.

Off the river, two days later, Hodel is riding through a broad, wide valley in a muddy passenger van toward the Grand Junction Airport in Colorado. In between pointing out prairie dogs to his wife, Barbara--"There's one. See the little gray animal? See them? See them?"--he continues to criticize the "single-interest" environmentalists whose world view, he says, "has the aspects of a theological method."

"In their view there are two classes of people in the world, the righteous and the unrighteous--and classification is done by the righteous." And what is frustrating about that attitude, Hodel says, is that it destroys the very dialogue that environmentalists claim they want.

"People say, 'You didn't listen to me.' And if you probe, you find that what they really mean is 'because you didn't do what I advocated.' "

As Hodel sees it, you can't please some environmentalists no matter what you do. President Carter's Interior secretary, Cecil D. Andrus, practically stood on his head "to curry favor with the preservationist constituency," Hodel says, and in the end, they sued him anyway.

To Drill or Not to Drill

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