Companies that spill oil while drilling offshore should pay for cleanup costs and damages. Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus said yesterday.

Andrus told a House panel that a law imposing such liability would "be a powerful incentive for responsible management by firms involved in outer continental shelf activities."

Environmentalists, whose lawsuits have delayed much offshore drilling, would also gain confidence from such a law that adequate compensation would be made for any spills, he said.

Andrus delighted members of the House Interior subcommittee by declaring himself "pro-environment."

Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) said, first time in my experience on this [WORD ILLEGIBLE] an Interior Secretary has given us a statement that could not have been written by the oil industry."

Andrus stated an intention to exert greater control over offshore drilling than the Ford administration did, and he supported legislation to overhaul procedures for selling offshore leases.

The Ford administration and the major oil company had opposed such legislation, which died in Congress last year.

Andrus said legislation on offshore leasing should give the Interior Department the power to:

. Modify or disapprove plans submitted by oil companies for offshore drilling.

. Cancel leases if it becomes clear that continued drilling would cause serious harm to the environment.

. Explore oil reserves before selling the leases to oil companies.