WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented step, the House on Tuesday declared part of the California coastline--the new Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Point Reyes--permanently off limits to offshore oil exploration.
The action marks the first time that a house of Congress has voted to impose a permanent ban on offshore drilling. If approved by the Senate, as is expected, the emergency legislation would exclude the entire 400-square-mile area from oil exploration, which could have begun as early as 1991. The Bush Administration has informally indicated that it would not block the Cordell Bank drilling ban.
The bank, which lies about 30 miles off Marin and Sonoma counties in Northern California, is a striking underwater region of plateaus and mountains that is populated by a rich variety of rare marine plants and animals, including the short-tailed albatross and the humpback whale.
Its majestic topography and extraordinary marine life were hailed Tuesday by Rep. Douglas H. Bosco (D-Occidental) as "the underwater equivalent of Yosemite or Yellowstone." Bosco, the sponsor of the drilling ban, declared: "This will lock in the protection and lock out the oil companies."
The protective legislation owed its success in large part to the Department of Commerce, which granted Cordell Bank special sanctuary status last month. Although the department contended that it could not immediately make the entire area off limits to oil drilling, it made clear that it favors such action and raised no objection to the House bill.
Nevertheless, supporters of offshore drilling in the Bush Administration and Congress expressed concern that the legislation could be used as a model to halt oil exploration in regions less worthy of protection.
Rep. Norman D. Shumway (R-Stockton) warned that drilling opponents might well "abuse the sanctuary law" as a "convenient and effective tool" to block necessary oil exploration along the California coast.
And a senior Department of Interior official indicated that the agency, expressing strong reservations within the Administration about the Commerce Department policy, had warned that it would be foolhardy to permit Congress to seize control of the drilling-ban procedures.
"This is an unusual case and a special set of circumstances," the official said. "But Congress still has to address the real issue, which is where we are going to get the oil we depend on."
Several other marine sanctuaries, including the Gulf of the Farallones area off San Francisco, already enjoy permanent exemptions from offshore drilling. But that status has always previously been granted by the executive branch after a time-consuming rule-making process.
The legislation approved on a voice vote by the House on Tuesday would short-circuit that process and elevate the drilling ban to the status of law.
Included in the legislation is a separate provision requiring the government to conduct a new environmental impact study before beginning exploratory drilling off North Carolina. The plan, included in the bill to win the support of eastern congressmen, would further delay drilling in tracts that were leased to oil companies as long as eight years ago.
Much of Cordell Bank falls within Lease Sale 119, which covers a massive part of the outer continental shelf off Central California and on which the Interior Department plans to open oil exploration in 1991.
Environmentalists and congressional opponents of offshore drilling hailed the action on Cordell Bank as an overdue effort to resolve what some called the contradictions inherent in a marine sanctuary in which oil drilling is to be permitted. "This is really a day of celebration for many of us," said Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae).
Some congressmen said they might seek sanctuary status for other coastal areas in an attempt to widen prohibitions on offshore drilling. But most said they expect anti-drilling forces to rely principally on the kinds of renewable moratoriums that have blocked new drilling off California for the last eight years.
While less permanent than a congressional ban, temporary bans have won the support of skeptics because they can be reconsidered as the nation's energy needs change.
The latest effort to extend the California moratorium is scheduled to be considered by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey) and strongly opposed by the Bush Administration, would go further than previous bans. It would block drilling in Alaska's Bristol Bay and ban even prelease activity along the length of the California coast.