HUNTINGTON BEACH — There they were--the two smiling congressmen, flashing "OK" hand signs, mugging for the cameras, waving a miniature Old Glory.
It could have been Any Town U.S.A., any time, political fodder for any issue. The difference this time, though, was that the politicians were scoring their points some 35 feet under water--surrounded by dozens of species of fish that call oil platform Edith their home.
"I think I've got some constituents down there," a jubilant Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) said as he floated atop the ocean after a scuba dive with Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), each a guest of platform owner Unocal.
"I just wish there were 10,000 environmentalists here to see all this," Rohrabacher said.
The Saturday trip, about 8 1/2 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, wasn't all leisure. Rohrabacher, whose district includes part of Orange County, had a specific agenda: to show that despite what he called "lies" spread by environmentalists, the sea around oil developments is a beautiful and habitable place.
The 20-minute tour, with press people accompanying the two congressmen, was unusual; Unocal officials say they have never done one like it.
Rohrabacher says he hopes it will sway public opinion in favor of a bill he is introducing in coming months to promote future offshore drilling by offering coastal cities--for the first time--a slice of the tens of millions in dollars in oil revenue generated off their shores.
If the nation's energy needs won't persuade people that drilling is essential, Rohrabacher surmises, perhaps the lure of more local money for parks or libraries or Bolsa Chica wetlands preservation, for instance, will do the trick.
But some local officials in Rohrabacher's district have already rejected the revenue-slicing idea he began floating around nearly two years ago. And the congressman's underwater lobbying, even with the miniature flag he brought along, did little to dissuade his critics.
"It's really a useless exercise, going out and diving around a platform,' said Burr Heneman, Pacific regional director of the Center for Marine Conservation in San Francisco.
"The damage that will be done will happen during drilling and if there's a spill," Heneman said. "Ask me about that platform in 20 years and we'll see what its (ecological) record is."
Opponents of offshore drilling maintain that, among the dangers, the more than 30 oil platforms now operating in Southern California waters pollute the air and ocean, hurt commercial fishing, mar scenic vistas and pose the constant threat of massive spills like the one off Santa Barbara in 1969.
The opponents won one of their biggest victories in June, 1990, when President Bush approved a 10-year ban on coastal drilling off Florida and much of California. But oil backers have continued to pursue the issue.
Huntington Beach Mayor Peter M. Green, an active environmentalist who teaches ecology at Golden West College, said of Saturday's trip: "It's Rhorabachian--he likes to go out and see what's going on for himself.
"I think that's commendable, but he should recognize that you can't find out everything about the effects on a short dive," Green said. Ecological harm, for instance, might be found at the bottom of the ocean, some 161 feet down, rather than near the top of the production operations, Green said.
Even Rohrabacher's dive buddy on the trip, Rep. Lewis, was noncommittal on the idea of offering financial incentives to reopen the waters to drilling.
"I have mixed emotions on the whole issue," the San Bernardino County congressman said. "There are still some serious questions to be answered. . . . It was something down there, but I haven't been as radically moved by the experience as Dana."
Indeed, as Rohrabacher dried off and got a drink on Unocal's dive boat, he said the dive "confirms for me" that oil platforms such as Edith pose no environmental harm and help fill a crucial economic need.
Although Unocal has not done any new drilling off Edith since 1985, it continues to produce 1,200 barrels of crude oil a day and 1.1 million cubic feet of natural gas from 16 existing wells on the platform, company officials said.
The platform has proven a sort of artificial reef, attracting myriad species of fish from throughout the food chain, including scallops, mussels, brittle stars, garibaldi and even sea lions.
Lewis likened it to "an underwater flower garden." And Rohrabacher said: "It was even better than I expected--I didn't expect to see as many fish and as much variety as I saw."
Rohrabacher said he does not want to "force offshore drilling down anyone's throat." Rather, he hopes his revenue-splitting proposal will cause some people "to take a second look" at the issue.
Rohrabacher plans to introduce his bill.