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Angry Residents of State's Northern Coast Jeer Plans for Offshore Drilling

February 04, 1988|From Times Wires Services

FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Residents spoke out resoundingly Wednesday against a federal plan for offshore oil drilling along the scenic coastline of Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

Critics outnumbered proponents by more than 10 to 1 during the all-day testimony, and two spokesmen for the oil industry were heckled during their brief presentations at the Interior Department hearing.

"Lease Sale 91 has incited an anger as intense as surely would arise at the paving of the Grand Canyon or the demolition of the Statue of Liberty," said Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, eliciting loud yells and cheers from the audience.

Greg Hill of Shell Oil's Western exploration and production division in Bakersfield countered that the industry has a very good environmental record in its offshore drilling.

Question of Security

"California should be proud that it has the potential to contribute so substantially to the energy security of the nation as a whole, and we urge that the leasing process continue its orderly path towards that goal," Hill said, as spectators shouted "No!" and booed.

A parade of witnesses assailed the proposal at the hearing, to boisterous cheers from people in a packed hearing room and 2,000 others who followed the proceedings by loudspeaker in the street outside and via a video hookup at a nearby church.

The opponents claimed to represent an overwhelming majority in this area about 150 miles north of San Francisco and said they could continue "filibustering" until hearing organizers were too weary to take more testimony.

However, federal officials said the hearing would be limited to 13 hours of nonstop testimony Wednesday and another 7 1/2 hours today.

"We have enough people to go for probably two days without stopping," said Rachel Binah, a leader of the group California Ocean Sanctuary, which was formed to fight offshore leasing proposals. "This terrible document has galvanized the entire community."

More than 750 people, including politicians, business owners, environmentalists and fishermen, signed up to testify against the Interior Department proposal at the hearing in the 500-person capacity Eagles Hall. Local radio and cable television outlets broadcast the hearing live.

State Controller Gray Davis, chairman of the State Lands Commission, called the plan irresponsible because it fails to assess the adverse impacts of increased tanker traffic into San Francisco Bay.

"Clearly, it does not provide even the most meager measure of accuracy regarding the potential dangers of development," Davis said. "The Lands Commission believes this document seriously underestimates the potential for oil spills."

Like a Pep Rally

Vanloads of opponents were driven in from the San Francisco Bay Area to testify at the second of two Interior Department hearings, drawing oil industry criticism that the Fort Bragg gathering was being turned into a pep rally.

In Eureka on Monday, supporters of proposed Lease Sale 91 were outnumbered by more than 3 to 1, although a handful of Eureka officials joined industry spokesmen in claiming that the plan would provide jobs and contribute to national security.

But critics of oil development have been organizing for weeks to take their strongest stand here, where tourism is heavy and where Noyo Harbor shelters the West Coast's largest salmon fishing fleet.

About 270 people, mostly women and teen-agers, walked up California 1 from Mendocino to the hearing, carrying anti-oil banners as they set out in freezing temperatures.

Many local shops were closed for the day, and citizens milled around outside the hall in a spirited atmosphere that featured appearances by politicians, musicians Bonnie Raitt and Holly Near and picketers whose signs read "NO OIL," and "Stop the execution."

California is the nation's No. 3 oil-producing state.

If the next President approves it, the February, 1989, lease sale would allow oil and gas development in 1.1 million acres ranging from 3 miles to 25 miles off Mendocino and Humboldt counties. The Reagan Administration contends the continental shelf in those waters probably contains a moderate supply of petroleum considered vital to reducing the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

Up to 22 offshore oil platforms could be built off the North Coast under the plan, although the oil industry said that many are unlikely. Another 5.4 million acres is proposed for sale along the rest of the California coast after Lease Sale 91.

In Sacramento, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel insisted that future exploration for new oil reserves off the California coast is virtually inevitable.

"The offshore plan will go forward no matter which party is elected (President this year) because the nation is going to need an energy supply," said Hodel, who has been the Reagan Administration's main offshore drilling advocate. "My successor, regardless of party, is going to be faced with that problem and he's going to be very hard-pressed to ignore the nation's energy requirements."

Hodel made his remarks to reporters after a speech to the Free Market Political Action Committee. He made no specific reference to the drilling sites proposed for Northern California.

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