Thwarted once at the Interior Department and again in court, a consortium of independent petroleum companies is asking Congress to reinstate the group's oil drilling rights off the California coast.
Although not unique, the effort by the consortium headed by Pauley Petroleum Inc. of Los Angeles is almost a textbook example of judical-administrative losers trying to become legislative winners.
Through the efforts of the Washington law firm of Aken, Gump, Hauer & Feld, the consortium is backing a bill pending in the House that would reinstate its rights to seek oil in the Santa Barbara channel.
If successful in Congress, the group would be able to resume activities in the channel where it left off before ti was stripped of its lease rights by the Interior Department because of a failure to produce oil from the tracts.
The consortium's bill was introduced last fall by Rep. Jerry M. M. Patterson (D-Calif.), who told the House his measure was not the "bailout" it might seem, but rather a case of providing justice to the companies.
Pauley and eight other indpendent firms in the group have battled at the Interior Department and in the U.S. Court of Claims for a decade in an effort to retrieve their drilling rights in the channel.
At one point, when the group was jousting with Interior, an unsuccessful appeal in its behalf was made to the department by Clark M. Clifford, widely regarded as one of Washington's most persuasive lawyer-lobbyists.
A case now is being pressed by attorneys representing the Coastal Group of Houston, parent of Colorado Oil and Gas, one of the consortium members. Pauley, Coastal, Mesa Petroleum and Husky Oil are supporting the legislative relief effort.
The dispute goes back to 1968, when a Union Oil Co. well in the Santa Barbara channel blew out of control and set off a major enviornmental furor. The Department of Interior stopped all drilling and exploration work in the channel.
Among those whose work was stopped was the Pauley group, which was just a few months into its five-year lease on two tracts in the channel. Nonproducing leases are terminated by the government after five years.
Although Interior later allowed resumption of work in the channel, the Pauley group declined to continue because, as a tenuously financed combine, it could not meet new liability requirements imposed by the department.
Subsequent changes in insurance procudures have allowed Pauley to meet the standards, but it has lost its rights to operate with expiration of the five-year production requirement.
Meanwhile the group sued the government in the Court of Claims, seeking damages of some $230 million it contended was lost in the lease sale and related exploratory and legal work.
The court ruled against Pauley a year ago. Hence the consortium's turn to Congress. Patterson has promised to push for House action early this year and the group's attorneys are seeking a Senate sponser for their bill.
Patterson noted that Congress, on several ocassions, has reinstated other oil and gas leases. The Pauley bill abandons previous monetary claims against the government, seeking ony the right to return to the two tracts for four more years and 126 days -- the time remaining when the Union Oil Co. well blew.
The lease should be reinstated, Patterson said, in fairness to the companies and to speed up domestic petroleum development by independent firms that ordinarily are hard-put to bid on the costly offshore parcels offered by the Department of Interior.
"That's part of the game," said a department official in Los Angeles. "They had an opportunity to stick with those leases, but they wanted their money back and they wanted out. Companies that stuck with it have now found productive wells in the channel."
Added an Interior official in Washington: "They blew a lot of money on those leases. They fought us, they took us to court. They lost. Now they want Congress to help them. I don't think there's a prayer that Congress would enact something like this."
Not so, countered a lawyer for the consortium, who would not allow use of his name.
"It's not an effort to do something sub rosa or to run around the Interior Department," he said. "We think it's a fair case . . . . It's not cut and dried, black and white, but there are some very strong equities involved."