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Guarding Our Coast

May 01, 1988

California has won two significant court victories in recent weeks that should send a strong signal to federal authorities: Californians must have a major role in determining the conditions for oil and gas company operations in federal offshore waters.

In the first case, a federal judge enjoined the U.S. Department of Commerce from its attempt to deny the California Coastal Commission federal funds for ongoing implementation of the coastal-zone management plan. U.S. District Judge Eugene F. Lynch said the Commerce Department and its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were wrong to challenge state controls over offshore oil operations. Lynch wrote that Congress clearly did not confer on NOAA "the ability to manipulate the coastal policy of the states."

The federal law was designed to encourage and help states in planning strong coastal protection, not to punish them for it. But punishment is what the Interior and Commerce officials sought, because they did not like the stringent safeguards California wanted for its coastline.

The second case, brought by the industry, challenged the legal standing of California cities and counties to impose conditions on onshore activities associated with offshore drilling and production. U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall dismissed most of the claims by the Western Oil & Gas Assn. against 13 cities and counties. The industry group contended that the local ordinances attempting to control oil and gas operations would create a wall from Mexico to Oregon against the development of oil in the outer continental shelf. Judge Marshall ruled that while local regulations might mean added inconvenience and expense for the industry, they did not make it impossible to operate.

The federal government has exclusive authority to grant oil and gas leases beyond the three-mile limit of state control, but offshore oil and gas activities are not confined to the ocean depths. Pipelines must be built. There must be storage tanks and processing plants. Support services are based on shore. All of these operations can dramatically affect the coastal area, which is under the land-use control of state and local government.

The idea of a wall against offshore oil was debunked just two months ago when Exxon won approval for its $2.5-billion Santa Ynez project after working out a compromise with Santa Barbara area officials.

The California coast is a special resource with special meaning to Californians. This is a concept that the Reagan Administration seems never to understand. Thus, the Administration has joined with the industry in a campaign to bulldoze over, through and around state and local government control. These two court cases, along with earlier precedents, should demonstrate that such a strategy is doomed. If the Administration wants to have any offshore oil program in California, the best way--perhaps the only way--is through negotiation and cooperation with Californians.

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