WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary C. William Verity Jr. said Thursday that he intends to resolve a dispute between federal agencies and the California Coastal Commission in a way that would preserve the commission's authority to regulate offshore oil and gas exploration with more stringent standards than the federal government would impose.
After meeting with California Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Monterey) and Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), Verity told reporters: "I am hopeful we can resolve this so everyone wins."
Verity set Nov. 23 as the deadline for a final report from the department's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management that would "give assurances that all the participants will be happy" and to release $1.9 million in federal operating funds that since last summer have been issued in monthly installments.
Wilson, describing the issue as "a problem the secretary inherited," said that he told Verity of a May memo from Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel to the late Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige accusing the commission of "usurping" federal authority. Verity, who was appointed in August, said he was unaware of that memo.
Pressure from Hodel eventually led to a draft report from the Ocean and Coastal Resource Management Office recommending decertification and loss of funding for the commission unless it cooperated more fully with federal authorities.
Under the Coastal Zone Management Act, Congress in 1972 gave states the right to regulate oil exploration and drilling as long as offshore oil rigs met minimum federal environmental standards. It also gave the Commerce Department authority to certify state coastal resource management agencies that qualified.
But the Interior Department, which retains jurisdiction over leasing land for offshore oil exploration, has clashed repeatedly during the Reagan Administration with the strict environmental standards California has imposed. That disagreement led to Hodel's May 29 memo to Baldrige and, it has been charged, to the draft report threatening decertification.
Along with the Hodel memo was a formal letter to the National Oceanic and Atmos-pheric Administration, which administers the ocean resource office, in which it was alleged that the California Coastal Commission is "failing to adhere to and deviating from the (federally) approved California Coastal Management Plan."
Hodel has denied that the Interior Department was actively seeking decertification.
The California legislators said that they believe Verity will order a compromise that will resolve the issue of cooperation without enforcing the penalty of decertification.
That penalty is within the Commerce Department's authority but it has never been imposed on a coastal state that polices oil and gas drilling in its own coastal waters and applies its own standards.
The earlier draft report, Wilson said, had been directed by officials "at a very junior level" who he suggested were under pressure from Hodel.