The Interior Department waded back into one of its most intense controversies yesterday, confirming that it is again considering oil and gas development off the shore of scenic northern California, within sight of the famous Big Sur coastline.
Interior Secretary James G. Watt suspended oil and gas development plans for four northern California basins last year following House and Senate votes to bar the leases and protests from California's congressional delegation, state Republican leaders, Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. and many local officials.
This year, Watt revealed that he was again considering leasing in the area as part of his plan for accelerated oil and gas development of the entire Outer Continental Shelf.
Yesterday's Interior announcement was phrased as a compromise with opponents of offshore California development. A press release said the department had decided not to lease the tracts under consideration during last year's controversy.
"There is considerable opposition to offshore leasing in this area, especially by local residents who are concerned about potential risks to their environment. We share their concern," said Robert Burford, director of Interior's Bureau of Land Management, who issued the announcement.
But officials later confirmed that Interior has not excluded from consideration vast portions of the four Pacific basins surrounding those tracts--an area between Eureka and Monterey near some of California's most prized coastline.
The conciliatory tone of the announcement provoked almost as much criticism as did its substance.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) called it "another Watt version of a Trojan horse . . . . Watt has demonstrated once again that he is an advocate for an extreme pro-oil, industry position, not the impartial arbiter of competing public interest that his position demands."
Gov. Brown called it a "hollow concession" and branded Watt "a zealot intent on wrecking our coastline with a hit-and-miss offshore drilling strategy."
A coalition of 11 counties and 35 cities in central and northern California called it "a hoax."
Rep. Leon E. Panetta, a Democrat who represents Big Sur, said the plan "provides virtually no protection to that precious coastline."
Republican Rep. Don H. Clausen, who represents the northern coastal area, also plans to oppose leasing in any portion of the four basins, a spokesman said. "This opens the whole fight up again," the spokesman continued, referring to last year's political furor, which culminated in warnings by state Republican leaders that the issue could hamper GOP prospects in this year's election.
The announcement identified only the areas under consideration. The department will not announce for several months which tracts it plans to offer to private industry for leasing. In the interim, it will prepare an environmental impact statement and take public and industry comments on proposed lease plans.
Besides excluding the 127 tracts that caused controversy last year, Interior announced it will also exclude areas around Monterey Bay, Point Reyes and the Point Reyes-Farallon Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
In all, the department will study 8.9 million acres for leasing along about 700 miles of coastline between Point Conception and the Oregon border, officials said.
The lease is scheduled for September, 1983.