Interior Secretary James G. Watt yesterday unveiled his revised proposal for accelerated oil and gas leasing on the outer continental shelf, but drew criticism from some of the environmentalists and western state officials whose concerns he had attempted to address.
As in his earlier proposal, Watt offered 1 billion acres of offshore lands for leasing in the next five years, predicting that oil companies will develop only a fraction of the area. But Watt deleted from his plan Alaska's Bristol Bay basin, a lucrative fishing ground that could be damaged by oil spills, and delayed exploration of certain sensitive areas along the central and northern California coast.
Watt portrayed his new plan as "a proper balance between the potential for environmental damage, the potential for the discovery of oil and gas, and the potential for adverse impact on the coastal zone." He noted that the deletion of Bristol Bay was the top priority of Gov. Jay Hammond of Alaska, whose coast includes 16 of the 40 sales proposed by Watt in the next five years.
However, the plan met with considerable skepticism at the Natural Resources Defense Council and in the office of California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who had both pushed to have the areas off the northern and central California coast deleted to protect the pristine coastline, recreation areas and fish spawning beds. Lease sales for those areas have been delayed from January until September, 1983, and from March until September, 1985.
"I think Secretary Watt is counting on a subsequent governor having different views from Gov. Brown," said Deni Greene, director of Brown's office of planning and research. "He's underestimating the concern of the people of California on this issue--all parties, all views share this concern, not just Gov. Brown."
The states of California and Alaska joined the NRDC in a 1980 lawsuit calling for more environmental restrictions on Interior's oil and gas leasing policy. Watt's latest proposal was intended to comply with a recent ruling in that suit, requiring the department to weigh the potential for environmental damage against the development possibilities of the sites. He said yesterday that the potential value of each site is "at least 20 times greater than the measurable environmental costs."
Nonetheless, spokesmen for the NRDC and Brown said they are considering further legal action in an attempt to force the administration to scale back the leasing program, but stressed that they have not yet made a decision. Hammond had no immediate response to the proposal.
Some of the proposed lease areas are considered rich in oil and gas, making the outer continental shelf one of three areas of highest potential for new petroleum discoveries in the United States. Watt has proposed cutting by one-third the time spent analyzing the environmental impact of drilling in American waters "in an effort to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil imports."