The first oil and gas lease sale under Interior Secretary James G. Watt's controversial new offshore leasing program was held yesterday, and oil companies bid on only 40 of the 554 tracts offered for sale.
High bids for all 40 of the nine-mile-square tracts totaled $12.3 million, the lowest offering per acre since the Interior Department put federal offshore lands up for lease in 1954.
The low bids are likely to put something of a damper on President Reagan's and Secretary Watt's promise that federal revenues and royalties from offshore oil and gas leases would make up as much as $15.7 billion toward the elimination of the federal deficit in fiscal 1983.
Interior Department officials said, however, that the areas up for bids yesterday were tracts passed over in earlier offerings or those where previous bids were rejected as too low.
"This was a junk sale," Interior spokesman Ed Essetier said. "We never expected to make much money off this sale."
Though they agreed that the tracts reoffered for sale were not the best, oil industry spokesmen suggested there were other reasons the bids were so low. Industry profits are down, exploration is down and demand for oil is down around the world.
Among the tracts that received no bids at all were 23 off the coast of New Jersey. New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean had sued to block the sale, claiming it would cause over $1 billion in damage a year to the state's commercial and recreational fishing industries. His suit became moot when no oil company wanted to drill there.
"Depressed prices have something to do with it and lower profits have something to do with it," said Stephen Chamberlain, outer continental shelf (offshore) coordinator of the American Petroleum Institute. "A lot of oil companies are also committing their exploration capital to more proven areas of the world, like the South China Sea and the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia."
The nine-mile-square tracts up for sale yesterday are located in the Gulf of Alaska, off the coast of central California and in the mid and south Atlantic off the coasts of New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
Oil industry spokesmen said yesterday's lease sale might not be a good barometer for future lease sales. Most said the sale to watch is the one scheduled for next month when large offshore tracts in the Diapir Field of the Beaufort Sea off the North Slope of Alaska are put up for bids.
"This will be an exceedingly interesting sale," Chamberlain said. "There is a lot more interest in that sale."
Conversely, there was as little interest in yesterday's sale as any sale in recent memory. Of the 140 tracts offered for sale in the Gulf of Alaska's Cook Inlet, none were bid on.
The highest bid yesterday was the $1.7 million made by Shell Oil Corp. for a nine-square-mile tract off the coast of the Carolinas about 50 miles out to sea on the Outer Continental Shelf. Neither of the two California tracts that Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown threatened to block with a court suit were bid on.
"This was our second reoffering sale," Essetier said, "and for the foreseeable future our last one."