SECRETARY WATT has said he intends to end the government's "paralysis by analysis." It is a laudable aim. But growing opposition to his swiftly taken decisions on offshore oil drilling suggests that too little analysis can be as entangling as too much.
Mr. Watt's first move was to proceed with a disputed sale of 115 tracts off the coast of California. The state objected to the sale of 32 of them because of what it felt was their greater environmental sensitivity and lesser oil potential. California claimed that the sale would conflict with the state's coastal zone management plan -- a plan set up under federal mandate. Mr. Watt went ahead anyway, but the sale was stopped in mid-course by a federal court injunction.
The opposition stirred up by that sale was nothing compared with the roar that greeted the secretary's announcement that he was also considering oil sales in four basins farther to the north. The basins lie off some of California's most scenic coastline, are home to the gray whale and other threatened species, include rich fisheries and are traversed by powerful and little-understood currents. Resistance to the prospect of these sales was so great that the Republican state chairman was moved to warn the president that Mr. Watt's determination could cost the GOP the governor's mansion, a Senate seat and control of the state legislature in the next election.
Quieter but more far-reaching criticisms are being leveled at the secretary's five-year plan to offer for sale almost the entire outer continental shelf -- one billion acres. Objections have come not only from environmental groups and state governments but also from the oil industry. The companies criticize the proposals for trying to push offshore leasing faster than the industry can manage. In fact, the government has previously sold many hundred offshore tracts that have not yet been explored or developed. The smaller oil companies argue that several of the secretary's proposed changes would give additional advantages to the seven giants, rather than increasing competition as Mr. Watt hoped. Many companies fear that the plan would create capital and equipment shortages and force companies to use unskilled labor on the drilling rigs, thereby raising the risk of expensive accidents.
A new report from the National Academy of Sciences counters much of what Mr. Watt has been saying about the minimal environmental and safety hazards of accelerated offshore drilling. It concludes that scientific uncertainty over the effects of oil pollution is so great that no accurate judgment can yet be made as to whether more offshore drilling will harm marine life. It warns that increased drilling could raise the likelihood of blowouts because of untrained workers. And it suggests the need for new, tighter safety standards.
Many of the final decisions are now out of Mr. Watt's hands. The judge has promised to rule by the end of the month on the disputed California sale. Responding to the political flap, the White House has taken over the decision on the sale of the northern basins. And the five-year plan must now be examined by Congress, along with the academy's report. It seems to us that in all these matters caution and restraint are in order.