U.S. Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel, defending his push for more oil and natural gas exploration off the Southern California coast, said an energy shortage would be far more damaging to the region's lucrative tourist trade than a major spill from offshore oil rigs.
Before speaking in Irvine to a regional water group Monday, Hodel said the nation must continue seeking energy self-sufficiency by exploring the coastal ocean floor or face a disastrous repeat of the oil and gas shortages of the 1970s.
While acknowledging that offshore oil drilling and pumping rigs are unsightly and that there are no guarantees against spills, Hodel said gas shortages would be far more crippling to coastal economies dependent on tourism.
For example, Hodel said, the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel that produced an 800-square-mile slick and blackened long stretches of beaches was "far less damaging" to tourism than the "long gas lines" in 1973 and 1979.
Elected officials representing cities and districts along much of the California coast have expressed continued opposition to Interior Department plans to open up offshore tracts for private energy exploration.
But Hodel said failure to explore offshore sources of oil would carry serious consequences.
"It's like putting a sign on us, 'Go ahead and take advantage of us, OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). We're incapable of taking care of ourselves,' " said Hodel, who served as energy secretary for three years before taking over the Interior Department in 1985.
Now is the time to determine the size of offshore oil and natural gas deposits, rather than waiting for an energy emergency to arise, he added. "At that point, when demand is great and supplies are low and costly, there's no telling what kinds of environmental reviews would be in place.
"If I lived along this coast, I'd prefer (that) someone in an orderly, careful manner find out right now what's out there before the need overrides the importance of safeguarding the environment."
Hodel was in Irvine as part of a swing through California to lobby for a study of draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.
Appearing before the Southern California Water Committee at the Registry Hotel, Hodel said that before the O'Shaughnessy Dam was built at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley, the area rivaled nearby Yosemite Valley in beauty.
San Francisco depends on Hetch Hetchy Reservoir for some of its water, and officials in that city are angered by Hodel's proposal. But Hodel said he believes that the city can find water from alternate sources, thus allowing the reservoir to be drained and the valley to be restored to its natural state.
The water committee is a coalition of Southern California city and county governments formed to seek regional solutions to water problems and promote water conservation.