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Clinton Takes Middle Ground With Offshore Drilling Ban

Environment: With Monterey Bay as a backdrop, president announces 10 more years of moratorium. He also unveils plans to protect fish.

June 13, 1998|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

MONTEREY, Calif. — President Clinton came to the shore of Monterey Bay on Friday to announce a 10-year extension of the federal ban on new oil and gas drilling off the nation's East and West coasts and a stepped-up effort to protect the world's fish population.

Standing on a hastily built stage on a municipal beach off Cannery Row, with the shimmering bay as a backdrop, Clinton listed a series of new and old environmental actions and promised "to preserve our living oceans as a sacred legacy for all time to come."

Clinton's action extending the moratorium on new oil and gas drilling was widely expected, although environmentalists and California politicians had hoped to persuade him to make the ban permanent.

Instead, officials said, the president decided that extending the moratorium until the year 2012 was a reasonable compromise between environmental protection and the interests of the oil and gas industries, which argue that improved technology is making drilling safer.

Clinton announced that he is also making the ban permanent in national marine sanctuaries, including Monterey Bay and the Channel Islands sanctuary off Santa Barbara.

"We must save these shores from oil drilling," Clinton told an audience of local officials, Monterey area Democrats, scientists and activists attending a National Oceans Conference. "Here in California, you know all too well how oil spills from offshore drilling can spoil our coasts, causing not just the death of marine life but also . . . economic devastation."

The president's decision to stop short of a permanent ban came as a disappointment to environmentalists, who nonetheless praised him for taking a step in their direction.

"Our coastline deserves protection forever," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who had lobbied Clinton for a permanent ban. But she called Clinton's action "wonderful" because, she said, it moves down "the path toward permanent protection."

Others were more critical. "The reality is that the Clinton administration, time after time, has chosen commerce and environmentally irresponsible policies over the protection of our oceans," said David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco.

Clinton's action, an executive order, prevents the federal government from issuing any new oil and gas leases off most of the nation's Pacific and Atlantic coasts until 2012. The moratorium was first imposed in 1990 by President Bush for a 10-year term ending in 2000; the Interior Department then issued a plan that lengthened the ban until 2002; Clinton added an extra 10 years.

Kathleen McGinty, chairwoman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, cast the decision as a sage compromise. "When you have the voices from right and left, and you sort of chart some place right in the middle, you must be doing something right," she said.

McGinty added that the Clinton administration is also proud that it has "equaled or surpassed previous administrations in the amount of oil and gas leasing that we have done."

That leasing has occurred mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, which is not covered by the moratorium--because it is "less environmentally fragile," she said.

A spokesman for oil companies operating in the Western states, on the other hand, dismissed Clinton's action as "political grandstanding" that merely leaves the existing situation unchanged.

"If they were to hold a lease sale tomorrow, I doubt anyone would show up," said Jeff Wilson, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn. in Los Angeles. He said state and local environmental restrictions have made it impractical and unprofitable to drill for oil off the California coast, even though the industry believes that technology has greatly reduced the risk of spills.

The oil drilling issue has consistently played a role in California elections, however, and Clinton made a point of praising both Boxer and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, for lobbying him on it.

Environmentalists said some of Clinton's other, less visible actions may have equal impact over the long run.

The president announced several actions aimed at reversing the decline in the world's fisheries: He ordered federal agencies to act to restore depleted fish stocks, protect fish habitats and reduce the accidental catch of noncommercial species; and he ordered a ban on the sale or import of Atlantic swordfish under 33 pounds.

The order to protect fish habitats could prove controversial in some areas; in the Pacific Northwest, for example, it could lead to new restrictions on logging or development in areas near streams that salmon use for spawning. Republicans in Congress have moved to remove or weaken that provision of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, which instituted more aggressive federal management of the nation's fish stocks.

"Clinton's move is a very good start, especially his tough language on fish habitats," said Anne Platt McGinn, a researcher at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. "He is, in effect, warning Congress that he intends to enforce that law."

In other actions, Clinton issued an executive order to protect and restore coral reefs off Hawaii, Florida and other areas; called for a new $800-million fund, paid for by fees levied against shippers, to repair and modernize the nation's ports; and renewed his plea to the Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty--long blocked by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)--which provides the international legal framework that supports activities at sea, including fishing and military operations.

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