WASHINGTON — In a blow to Bush Administration hopes for a consensus on offshore drilling, a House Appropriations subcommittee voted Tuesday to delay new federal offshore oil drilling and pre-lease activities along the California coast until at least October, 1990.
The action, sponsored by Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey) and strongly opposed by the Administration, would renew a congressional moratorium that has blocked new drilling off the California coast for eight years.
The step would delay a White House plan to resolve the long-standing controversy by next January and would significantly reduce the influence of a high-level task force appointed by President Bush to review the drilling plans.
The measure, sponsored by a bipartisan majority of the state's congressional delegation, is expected to face bitter opposition when it is taken up by the full Appropriations Committee, where action is expected as early as next week.
Administration officials reacted sharply to the panel's action.
"Not until we have brownouts or long gas lines will people realize that we have to get oil from somewhere," Interior Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said.
"There's still the illusion that around every corner there's a tanker and that every tanker is another Valdez," Goldstein said. "That has got to be defused."
Leading opponents of offshore drilling, however, described the action, taken on a voice vote of the subcommittee on the interior, as a major victory.
"The Administration was trying to steal the initiative," said Lisa Speer, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This sends a very clear message that its task force is not enough."
The Panetta moratorium, included as an amendment to a proposed appropriations bill for the Interior Department, calls for a far more sweeping halt to drilling plans than has ever been previously approved.
It includes for the first time a complete ban on new drilling activity along the length of California and would also halt planned drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay and off the coast of several Mid-Atlantic states.
Bush sought to demonstrate his concern for the environment in his State of the Union message, in part, by announcing delays in drilling plans for two major California lease sales--Lease Sale 91 off Northern California and Lease Sale 95 off Southern California--and for another proposed drilling site off the coast of Florida.
That plan had no effect on another proposed area, Lease Sale 119 off Central California, however. It permitted pre-leasing activity to continue on all three sites while the task force pondered whether actual drilling should go forward.
The Administration panel, headed by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., is to report to Bush by the end of the year.
The proposed new congressional moratorium would halt even pre-leasing steps, such as public hearings and environmental impact statements, for all three California lease sales until October, 1990, when fiscal 1990 ends.
Panetta said the bill would allow Congress to "review the recommendations of the President's task force and any actions he takes as a result of that report.
"In doing so," Panetta continued, "we can lay the groundwork for a long-term solution that protects coastal communities and the coastal environment."
But Interior spokesman Goldstein dismissed the moratorium as a "delaying tactic that doesn't help to address the real issue, and that is how do we handle offshore drilling in this country."