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Other coastal states want restrictions on oil drilling

Published Jul. 5, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

When President Bush decided to ban offshore oil drilling in huge areas near Florida, the West Coast and New England until at least the year 2000, he was trying to end a decade-long tussle with Congress in one bold stroke. He failed.

Though scores of lawmakers were overjoyed by Bush's June 26 decision, members representing other coastal states _ such as New Jersey and North Carolina _ said their shores should also be protected from unsightly and potentially messy oil rigs.

And in the same week that Bush made his announcement, legislation aimed at blocking offshore drilling in additional areas moved forward in both chambers.

Congress and the White House have been at odds over offshore oil drilling since 1981, when the Reagan administration's pro-energy Interior secretary, James Watt, moved to open up a billion offshore acres to oil companies.

Congress responded by imposing a series of one-year drilling bans on a progressively bigger area, which this year reached 84-million acres.

Some of the country's most promising oil fields are off the California and Florida coasts, but opposition to drilling along those populated shores is intense.

When he came to office, Bush was determined to quell the politically dangerous issue. California and Florida are key states in the coming reapportionment battles. The Republicans badly want to retain the governor's office in both but face tough challenges this November.

A former Texas oilman, Bush was considered by many environmentalists to be predisposed to allow exploration and production. But, displaying his cautious nature, Bush set up a task force to study the problem and then took months mulling over the options it offered. In the end, he went further than anyone thought he would.

Bush banned offshore drilling through at least 2000 in almost 99 percent of California; all of Washington and Oregon, all of New England from Rhode Island north, and Southwest Florida from about Marco Island south to the Keys. Bush said he may allow drilling off San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, near some existing rigs, some which are among the nation's oldest.

The combined effect of the decision: For the rest of this decade, at a minimum, a nation that is increasingly dependent on oil imports (expected to total 9.1-million barrels a day by 1995) will forego a major portion of the estimated 10.8-billion barrels of oil and 106-trillion cubic feet of natural gas (the equivalent of nearly 18-billion barrels of oil) estimated to lie off the nation's coasts.

The decision also means the loss of substantial lease revenues. Oil-state members and the business interests they represent were furious.

"He made a terrible mistake for all the wrong reasons," said Rep. Jack Fields, a Texas Republican. "It's an open invitation to a third energy embargo, which could cripple the American economy for years to come. As a former oil man, President Bush should have known better."

Drilling opponents from the affected areas, while not completely satisfied, were nonetheless delighted with what they got.

"We would have liked to have seen permanent protection for more areas; out of Bush, I think it's the best we could expect," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

One thing appears fairly certain: Members will continue to press for drilling moratoria in areas not covered by Bush's decision, especially off the Florida Panhandle, the North Carolina and New Jersey shores, and in Alaska's Bristol Bay.

Rep. Sidney Yates, D-Ill., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, says his panel will include a drilling moratorium for those areas in this year's funding bill for the department.

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