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.
In Orange County, reaction to the House committee action ranged from mild interest to jubilation.
"Wonderful!' exclaimed Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who along with Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley, in May persuaded their colleagues to adopt a resolution opposing drilling off the Orange County coastline.
"What this tells me, is that maybe our federal government is ready to adopt an energy policy before they make such strong policies as going ahead and drilling for oil on the outer continental shelf," Wieder said.
Said a delighted Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth C. Frank: "Wow! I think it's great."
Tourist-oriented Laguna Beach has long opposed drilling off its beaches, and on Tuesday had sent telegrams to 17 members of the House Appropriations Committee seeking the action. A similar vote on the issue two years ago failed by one vote, Frank said.
So, although Thursday's decision "doesn't give us permanent protection, it does at least signal that some members of Congress are more concerned about oil drilling than they were two years ago," Frank said.
Newport Beach City Councilwoman Evelyn R. Hart, who has been fighting offshore oil drilling for at least 11 years, said she would have preferred a permanent moratorium on drilling to what she termed a one-year "postponement."
A proposed federal lease sale off the coast "is very detrimental to Orange County because of the (negative impact on) air quality, and I would not like to have that come back under a very different disguise in a year's time," Hart said.
Also pleased with the vote was congressional aide Mike Eggers, whose boss, Rep. Ron Packard (R.-Carlsbad), worked hard for the moratorium bill. Eggers said the moratorium decision came just in time.
"They (federal officials from the Interior Department) were ready to initiate the lease process as early as 1990," he said.
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.