Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, moving to smooth the way for his new five-year offshore oil-leasing plan, today toured California drilling facilities and assured West Coast officials that he is ready to amend the plan to protect the environment.
In what environmental protection officials here saw as a marked contrast to the confrontational tactics of James G. Watt when he was interior secretary, Hodel told state officials, "I want to work toward a consensus."
But he also said more drilling is essential off the California coast, where there may be up to 1.5 billion barrels of untapped oil.
Oil imports are rising again, he said, adding that without new drilling the country could become dangerously dependent on foreign oil as the large reserves under Alaska's northern shore are drained.
At a morning session of the Outer Continental Shelf Advisory Board policy committee -- a group of state, local and industry officials organized by the Interior Department to advise the secretary -- Hodel criticized the soon-to-expire congressional ban on new drilling off California and Massachusetts.
He said California offshore oil crews had spilled only 41 barrels out of 30 million barrels produced there last year, less than might be spilled by one good-sized marina.
A "moderate" drilling program, he said, should convince congressional critics that oil can be produced without jeopardizing sea animals and beaches.
Officials representing West Coast governors of both parties reacted favorably to the Interior secretary's peace mission, particularly his offer to eliminate the most environmentally sensitive areas from his leasing plan as early as possible in the review process.
They noted that Hodel's trip continued efforts begun by his immediate predecessor in the Interior secretary job, California rancher and former state Supreme Court justice William P. Clark, to dampen the anger created by Watt in the first years of the Reagan administration.
In his five-year plan announced in March, Hodel agreed to slow Watt's aggressive offshore-leasing plan and try to balance environmentalist and oil-industry concerns so that drilling could proceed without lawsuits.
Under the new plan, leases outside the Gulf of Mexico would be offered every three years, rather than every two years as proposed by Watt.
Hodel has also promised "much reduced acreage" for the leasing but has left vast areas of coastal waters open to discussion.
Defining potentially oil-rich areas that do not threaten the environment is difficult in California "because attractive acreage is much closer to shore" than it is on the Atlantic Coast, Hodel said. But if he can arrive at a program "that is reliable, that is certain, then the nation is much better off . . . than under an aggressive program . . . . that is tied up in the courts."
California Environmental Affairs Secretary Gordon Duffy, a Republican appointee, said that his staff has not completed its study of the plan but that he welcomes Hodel's effort "to be cooperative rather than confrontational."
Brian Walsh, manager of the outer continental shelf program in Washington state, praised Hodel's effort to slow the pace and limit the area of offshore leasing. Walsh said his state also is preparing a formal response to the plan.
Hodel left the advisory board meeting for an all-day tour of Exxon's Hondo platform pumping oil off Santa Barbara and part of the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary under Interior Department jurisdiction.
Hodel, a former U.S. energy secretary, said it was his first visit to an offshore platform.