An offshore oil-drilling agreement between Interior Secretary Donald Hodel and a California congressional delegation disintegrated yesterday, and angry lawmakers pledged to seek renewal of a moratorium that has blocked oil exploration off much of the state for four years.
"We had an agreement and the Department of Interior is reneging on the agreement," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) after a stormy session between Hodel and the Californians. "The administration's credibility has suffered a very serious blow. We have no alternative but to go for a moratorium."
Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), who led the negotiations, said, "We are essentially back at war" on oil development off California.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said the July agreement still had the support of both of the state's senators and 70 percent of its 45-member House delegation, but "the secretary does not support the agreement and wants to make what would be major changes."
"We presumably will seek to extend the moratorium or put the agreement into law, with minor modifications," Cranston said.
The agreement, announced in July, would have opened 150 nine-square-mile tracts off California to oil-drilling. More than 6,300 other tracts would have been left off limits until the end of the century, barring a national emergency.
The Interior Department now wants to open different tracts to drilling, and Hodel is arguing that the July announcement was "part of the negotiating process" rather than a binding pact.
"This was from the beginning recognized to be a preliminary agreement," he told reporters yesterday.
Hodel said the department's enthusiasm for the deal began to wane during a series of public meetings in California last month when "it became apparent that perhaps 5 to 7 percent of the resources locked up by the moratorium would be reachable by this agreement." Until then, Hodel said, he was unaware that the 150 agreed-upon tracts were such poor prospects for exploration.
"With all due respect, I don't see how he could be unaware," said Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). "The facts haven't changed. That information was supplied by industry, and it was from that data that we worked out this compromise."
Interior Department analysts have identified a new set of tracts that it believes offer better production potential, but the department has declined to make the locations public. Hodel did not offer the new tracts to the lawmakers yesterday, but the department is believed to be looking at near-shore tracts off Santa Cruz, Point Arena and Bodega Bay in southern California.
The oil industry blasted the July agreement, but the American Petroleum Institute suggested yesterday that the industry would feel the same way about any new agreement Hodel might propose. In a statement, the trade group said it would be "folly" to close off "any substantial amount" of California's coast "by moratoria, negotiated agreement or any other means."
However, Hodel's action won the approval of Energy Secretary John S. Herrington, who had attacked the agreement as "not in the best interest of America's energy future."
"I commend Secretary Hodel for his flexibility and his openmindedness, and for his heroic efforts to reach a consensus and consult with the Hill as required by law," Herrington said.
Environmental groups said they were disappointed that the agreement had collapsed, and said they were skeptical that additional discussions would be fruitful