San Diego County officials, residents and environmentalists sent an overwhelmingly negative message Monday to a presidential task force studying the impact of proposed offshore drilling of crude oil and natural gas.
During a six-hour hearing in Carlsbad marked by strong emotions, opponents criticized federal plans to lease a huge tract of sea-bottom land off the Southern California coast to oil companies.
"Please do not sacrifice our gold coast to the black plague from the bowels of the Earth," implored Gail Brydges of Coronado during public comments. "We're deathly afraid of what will happen. We know what will happen."
Principal Members Absent
Five staff members of President Bush's Outer Continental Shelf Leasing and Development Task Force were met with a barrage of opposition to a plan to open up drilling in the tract known as Lease Sale 95.
The principal members of the task force--the secretary of the interior, secretary of energy, director of the Office of Management and Budget, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--did not attend the hearing.
Lease Sale 95 is a tract encompassing 6.7 million acres with about 1,300 near-shore parcels that stretch from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border. It includes 17 near-shore parcels stretching from Camp Pendleton to Carlsbad.
Although the task force, formed in February, is only on a fact-finding mission and is not expected to furnish a report of its findings to Bush until January, Monday's hearing left little doubt about how drilling would be received here. Only a few people spoke in favor of the lease, and dozens opposed it.
"I think I speak for many of us when I say what we would like is the development of a true national energy program," said Susan Golding, chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.
Golding, who moderated the hearing, said her comments echoed those of local elected officials and others, who urged the task force to recommend scrubbing the lease plans.
Various Tasks Ahead
Before making a recommendation, the task force will perform tasks, among them considering the adverse environmental and economic impact of drilling and conducting an oil-spill study.
The task force was formed after Bush voiced "considerable concern" about environmental issues surrounding the leasing of three massive sea-bottom tracts. Also under consideration are Lease Sale 91, off Northern California, and Lease Sale 116, off southern Florida.
"This is not a 'not-in-my-back-yard attitude,' " said San Diego City Councilman Ed Struiksma, adding that "too many issues haven't been adequately addressed."
Among them, he said, is the coastal shelf's depth, the ocean's ecosystem, the emission of pollutants from drilling platforms and the military's use of the ocean off the San Diego County coast.
Lois Ewen, chairwoman of the San Diego Assn. of Governments, said the coastal shelf's depth would pose a hazard for drilling. Ewen said most of the shelf is 1,300 feet deep at about 25 miles offshore, and that would create problems.
"The majority is deeper than that, which increases the chance of an accident," Ewen said. "Even with the technology, it's risky."
'Think of the Children'
Another opponent pleaded: "I beg you to think of the children. You don't know the heritage you will leave them."
However, one proponent of offshore drilling contended that much of the testimony was skewed.
"My stomach is burning, and it's too bad there isn't time to rebut some of the claims made," said Carroll Hoyt of Escondido, an offshore oil consultant for 25 years.
"A large percentage of exploratory holes prove to be barren," Hoyt said in reference to fears of oil leaks. Hoyt's comments were met with jeers from environmentalists who jammed the Carlsbad Public Safety Center.
One industry representative claimed that drilling off the coast of Southern California could be done safely and without environmental harm.
"Oil spills are not a serious problem in outer continental shelf petroleum operations as a result of oil and gas exploration, development and production," said Dilworth Chamberlain, senior consultant for environmental sciences for the Arco oil company.
Open Mind Promised
At the start of the hearing, Robert Kallman, the task force's executive director, told the audience of more than 250 that a prudent decision will be made after the issues are weighed.
"The President has told us what's at stake," Kallman said. "It will be received in an open mind by the President."
Before the hearing, local environmental groups marched to protest the possible lease.
About 120 protesters marched in a circle for an hour, waving banners and signs with anti-drilling slogans.
They chanted, "Let's begin alternate solutions" and "No way dude, we don't want your crude," and handed out literature.
Despite the assurances of the task force, one environmentalist predicted the lease plan will go forward.
"It's a foregone conclusion to what they're going to find," said Kelly Quirke, ocean ecology coordinator for Greenpeace.
The task force "is going to have to find that it's viable or else face many questions from other proposed drilling areas . . . on why it would be risky here and not there."