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Coastal Panel Sues to Stop Changes in Oil Drilling Rules

January 06, 1988|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

The battle for control over the environmental impacts of oil and gas rigs in federal waters off California's coast heated up Tuesday as the state's top lawyer filed suit, charging that the Reagan Administration is trying to reduce the state's regulatory powers.

Acting on behalf of the California Coastal Commission, state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp asked the U.S. District Court in San Francisco for an order blocking efforts of the U.S. Department of Commerce to change the way the state regulates offshore oil drilling.

"For almost a decade . . . the Coastal Commission has analyzed each proposed . . . project . . . and worked with the applicant to reduce . . . pollution sources," Van de Kamp said. "Now (federal officials) want to change the rules. . . . The result will be that California has less control over its coast and the oil companies have more."

Funds Withheld

Van de Kamp said the Commerce Department's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management has withheld nearly half a million dollars earmarked for the state as part of federal efforts to force the changes. He called the withholding "bureaucratic blackmail" and asked that the funds be released to the state, without strings.

Federal regulators contend that the state commission's "lack of guidelines or standards to assist applicants" are a "substantial deviation" from the requirement of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. Commerce Department officials say changes must be made if the state is to retain its regulatory powers.

"We think we have a legal right to ask the commission for such guidelines and standards," said Commerce spokesman Jack LaCovey. He said that efforts to negotiate the differences between the federal and state positions have failed. He added, "There's a difference of opinion . . . that's what courts are for." The suit is expected to clarify the role of the federal government and the coastal states in the regulation of negative environmental impacts caused by offshore drilling.

States Losing Power

"California has borne the brunt" of federal efforts to "strip the states of power in federal waters" since 1981, said Richard F. Delaney, director of coastal programs in Massachusetts and chairman of the Coastal States Organization. "Clearly . . . the (Reagan) Administration wants to . . . hinder and obstruct states in their sound coastal management programs," he said.

The issue revolves around the federal coastal protection act that grants states the right to impose environmental protections on offshore oil projects in federal waters, provided the states adopt protective coastal management plans stricter than the minimum guidelines set down by Congress. As part of the federal law, Congress helps complying states fund coastal protection.

Commerce Department officials contend that the California commission's tough, case-by-case approach to regulating the environmental impact of oil platforms puts too heavy a burden on the oil companies. They demand that the state adopt a general set of environmental guidelines and regulations that would be applicable to all oil company projects.

The majority of California's congressional delegation, led by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-San Diego), has opposed the Reagan Administration's effort to change the rules and, last month, Wilson inserted language in a budget resolution ordering Commerce officials to release the state's $407,000 in operating funds.

Without these operating funds, the commission has been hamstrung in its work, said commission spokesman Jack Liebster. After Congress passed the continuing resolution, the Commerce Department released $407,000 in operating funds, as ordered, but the release was conditioned upon the commission making the demanded changes, Liebster said.

"They tied the ($407,000) operating funds to $341,000 they have earmarked for 'special improvements' that require us to change our regulations. . . . These conditions are illegal and we can't do that," Liebster said. Even so, the commission has taken the $407,000 in operating funds "under protest," and it filed Tuesday's court suit to protect its action, according to Liebster. The commission will not accept the $341,000 until the issue is resolved.

In addition to asking the court to find that the Commerce Department-ordered changes are illegal, the suit seeks to overturn the federal finding that the state was not in compliance with the 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act, Liebster said.

Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), a staunch commission defender, said of the lawsuit, "The commission simply had no choice." He called the conditions placed on California's federal funding "illegal and unacceptable."

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