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Just How Much Is a Coastline Worth? : Offshore drilling moratorium faces a regressive attack

June 18, 1995

For 14 consecutive years, Congress has seen fit to continue the temporary moratorium on oil drilling in federal waters off California that it first imposed in 1982. Now a new Congress, with most dubious logic, seeks to lift that moratorium. If those pushing this effort succeed, it will represent an act of extraordinary recklessness for California and other coastal states.

In recent years there's been strong bipartisan backing for the moratorium. In 1990, President George Bush, himself an oilman, signed a statement supporting an extension of the moratorium until the year 2000. Bush was motivated by concerns over the environmental consequences of drilling and the state of drilling technology.

LONG REACH: Since Bush made his promise, Congress wisely has expanded the geographic reach of its drilling ban. Included each year as part of the Interior Department's appropriations, that moratorium now extends to federal waters up and down the entire eastern and western coasts, wrapping around Florida and including part of Alaska. Only the Gulf of Mexico is excluded, where the vast majority of this nation's coastal oil reserves are and where there has long been drilling.

The House interior appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the Interior Department's budget. This year that committee, now headed by Republican Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), is expected to unceremoniously drop the moratorium. Regula has long opposed the measure; Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), who consistently supported it in the past, has so far refused to support it this year.

The disingenuous argument against the moratorium is twofold: The coastline deserves better than just temporary protection and Congress should not use budget bills to set policy.

As to the first, certainly a permanent drilling ban is far preferable to the year-to-year moratorium. (Last year California permanently banned drilling in state waters, extending three miles offshore. The congressional moratorium applies to federal waters beyond that.) But even when Congress was friendlier to the environment, there was insufficient support for such a ban. A bill to permanently bar drilling will soon be introduced. But until that bill becomes law--far from a certainty--the temporary ban should remain.

As to the second argument, that Congress has inappropriately used budget bills to make policy: Fine as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere. Just last week, the House voted to restore a ban President Clinton had lifted on abortions in military hospitals as part of a $267-billion defense authorization bill. Earlier this year, the House tacked on a one-year moratorium on all new health and safety and environmental regulations to its budget recisions bill. Also in that package is new language that would permit stepped-up logging operations in California's last remaining old-growth forests. These actions don't justify policy-making through budget bills, but they do leave the rationale for lifting the moratorium on very shaky moral ground.

WIDE SUPPORT: Outside the Washington Beltway, protection for this nation's coastal waters draws remarkably bipartisan support from state and local elected officials (including California Gov. Pete Wilson), chambers of commerce, the fishing and travel industries and homeowner associations. That's because drilling would jeopardize the fishing and tourism jobs on which beach states like California and Florida so heavily depend.

And what would drilling accomplish? Easing restrictions would affect less than one-half of 1% of total world oil reserves, according to federal estimates. At the 1994 U.S. rate of oil consumption, proven reserves off California would last just 41 days. Surely our coastal waters are worth more than that.

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