WASHINGTON — A key House committee Thursday approved the most sweeping moratorium on offshore oil exploration ever enacted, putting 84 million acres of U.S. coastline--including the entire California coast--off limits from new drilling until October, 1990.
The action, which lifted the ban past its most formidable hurdle, marks a major victory for those who have urged new caution toward oil exploration in the aftermath of a series of major oil spills across the United States.
It would effectively give Congress new control over a number of controversial offshore drilling plans, short-circuiting an aggressive effort by the Bush Administration to forge a consensus on the issue and unshackle itself from congressional limits.
In a bitter response, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. assailed Congress for "shooting at the wrong target" in failing to focus on the oil tankers held responsible for recent spills. To demonstrate the Administration's outrage, he announced plans to allow oil companies to begin drilling in a new 28 million-acre, oil-rich swath of the Gulf of Mexico.
The new congressional moratorium, approved on a voice vote by the House Appropriations Committee as part of a larger package, would go far beyond an existing drilling ban for Northern and Southern California, which has been imposed each year since 1981.
The expanded ban would, for the first time, cover a proposed lease sale off Central California and include vast regions in Alaska's Bristol Bay and off several mid-Atlantic states. Also included in the ban are areas off southern Florida and George's Bank, off Massachusetts.
In an unprecedented step, the moratorium would also afford California the added protection of a ban even on pre-lease drilling activities, such as environmental studies--a step certain to cause delays in the Interior Department's drilling timetable.
"This is a critical victory at a critical time," said California Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), sponsor of the drilling moratorium.
Another Californian, Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), added, "We have effectively brought the entire sale process to a screeching halt."
Others warned, however, that to put vast areas of the U.S. coastline off limits to offshore drilling represented a decision to cede control over U.S. energy to foreign oil producers.
"This says that the energy policy of the United States is to do nothing," warned Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the principal opponent of the measure.
Before becoming law, the moratorium must first be adopted by both the full House and Senate. But officials on both sides of the drilling debate said they expect the measure to be approved in light of the current climate of concern over oil exploration and its hazards.
While the Administration strongly opposes the measure, it is regarded as virtually veto-proof because it is included as an amendment to a vital supplemental spending measure that President Bush would be unlikely to block.
If enacted, the moratorium would severely limit the influence of a White House task force appointed by Bush to advise him on whether drilling should proceed in controversial areas off Northern and Southern California and Florida's Gulf Coast.
The task force, which has been seeking to strike a balance between the concerns of environmentalists and the nation's energy needs, has been instructed to make recommendations to Bush by the end of the year. Under the moratorium, however, the department would be unable to act until October, 1990, leaving Congress time to challenge any drilling plans that it still might find unacceptable.
"The task force has, for the most part, become irrelevant," said Robert Hattoy, the Sierra Club's Southern California regional director.
Interior Department spokesman Steve Goldstein said the panel will continue its work.
"It's quite clear that Congress is trying to usurp the actions of the task force, and we just don't believe that's correct or proper," he said.
The new area put up for lease Thursday by the Interior Department lies off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. The proposed drilling there has generated little controversy.
The heated debate over the drilling moratorium was made more ferocious by sharp differences among legislators over the lessons that should be drawn from the series of recent oil spills, including the damage caused in Alaska's Prince William Sound by 10 million gallons of crude oil that leaked from the tanker Exxon Valdez.
Environmentalists and anti-drilling forces have contended that the experience should make lawmakers more cautious about all forms of oil exploration. While drilling has resulted in few spills, they noted that much of the oil gathered offshore must be transported to land by tankers.
But the Administration, the oil industry and their supporters countered that new regulations ought to aim specifically at oil tankers.