Congress must shortly decide whether to continue the moratorium that has been in effect on oil and gas drilling off the California coast since the earliest months of the Reagan administration. There is growing impatience in both houses with the plea of Californians that their coast be favored in this way. The understandable view is that California ought to be able to work out a compromise with the administration and the oil industry, as other states have, in which energy, commercial and environmental interests all would be represented and partly served. Certainly that is the right goal. But given where the parties now stand, a one-year extension of the moratorium may be more help than hindrance in achieving it.

The moratorium was a protective reaction to the leasing instincts of the administration's first Interior secretary, James Watt. The combative Mr. Watt's stated sense of the matter was pretty much that whatever the government owned and industry wanted, industry ought to have. He overreached and produced overreaction in turn. The tracts off California are among the more important U.S. energy fields still largely unexplored. What Mr. Watt mostly achieved was to have them locked up.

This year the new Interior secretary, Donald Hodel, tried to end the polarization. He negotiated with the California delegation and in July reached a "preliminary agreement" to open 150 of the 6,460 offshore California tracts to drilling over the rest of this century. On the strength of that the House passed an Interior appropriations bill without a moratorium rider. But Mr. Hodel then renounced the agreement, in part under industry pressure. The Californians, who had already given up their customary legislative vehicle, had to rush to have a moratorium attached to the continuing resolution under which most of the government is being funded for the first 45 days of this fiscal year.

The Californians and Mr. Hodel are now moving back to the bargaining table. Meanwhile, the continuing resolution and the moratorium both come up for renewal on Nov. 14. The Californians say they will be in a much weaker position at the bargaining table without a moratorium, and there are two reasons for giving in to them. One has to do with fairness: to some extent they were misled into giving up their leverage when the appropriations bill was around. The other is practical. The affected communities can fight all kinds of rear-guard actions against a drilling program if there is no political resolution of the problem. The Californians should be given a chance to bargain without a gun at their head.