THE INTERIOR Department proposes to offer for lease nearly the entire Outer Continental Shelf -- one billion acres -- in five years. That compares with the approximately 15 million acres a year currently offered. No areas are to be withheld because of geological hazards, ecological fragility or biological resources, such as fisheries, that could be damaged or destroyed by oil drilling. Though the secretary would have the power to cancel a lease for environmental reasons after the sale, exercising that power would be costly and wasteful once substantial corporate money had already been spent.
In an effort to streamline the leasing process, the government proposes to cease collecting its own information on geological and biological characteristics of a site before it is leased. Advance planning for the lease sales will be based on huge areas of up to 100 million acres, making it difficult for state and local governments to prepare for the impacts on their coastlines of offshore drilling.
Interior believes that its plan will stimulate competition among oil companies for the offshore leases and dramatically increase the volume of oil and gas production. If drilling rigs and geological information were widely and readily available, that might happen. But many oil companies believe competition will actually decrease because the greatly accelerated schedule favors the giant companies that have the largest and most expensive exploration programs. The history of other lease sales has never established a direct relationship between the size of sales and the subsequent volume of oil produced.
Secretary Watt is right in believing the offshore leasing program could stand some improvement. It has been unnecessarily cumbersome and uncertain; government policy on which areas should be leased and when has lurched unpredictably. But the proposed new arrangement -- throwing open the entire Outer Continental Shelf with no government role in judging the suitability of each area for development -- goes too far in the other direction. The oil industry has neither the capability nor the desire to swallow 200 million acres of sea bed each year.
The resources of the Outer Continental Shelf do need to be explored and developed. But because there is much of value in and below those waters other than oil and gas, this should be done in an orderly way that balances oil development and environmental protection.