PANEL set to make recommendation on new offshore drilling

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An advisory panel to the Interior Department has taken the first step that could lead to renewed drilling for natural gas in coastal waters that have been off limits for nearly two decades.

The policy committee on Outer Continental Shelf development was expected to vote Wednesday whether to forward a recommendation to Interior Secretary Gale Norton for a number of ``pilot'' gas development sites in waters subject to drilling bans.

The aim would be to ``see if there are grounds for a limited lifting of (the) moratoria,'' according to a recommendation drafted by the natural gas subcommittee of the OCS panel.

If acted upon by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, it would be the first step toward overturning a moratorium on oil and gas development on 610 million acres of ocean that Congress first imposed in 1982 and President Bush's father extended for 10 years in 1990 when he was in the White House. The ban was further extended to 2012 by President Clinton, but could be overturned by another presidential order.

``This is the first time since the moratorium was initiated in 1982 that we've seen a concerted effort on the part of (the Interior Department) and the oil industry to gain access within the moratoria areas,'' said Richard Charter, a marine conservation specialist for Environmental Defense.

The recommendation by the natural gas subcommittee of the OCS advisory panel urges the Interior Department to identify five sites, in waters now under the drilling moratorium, that could serve as part of a pilot project for gas development.

The report does not mention any specific sites.

But Charter speculated the sites most likely to be singled out include two off California, several off the Gulf coast of Florida, Georges Banks in New England and an area off the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

These have been frequent targets of the petroleum industry because of their large potential gas reserves.

The president's energy task force, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, last week urged that Norton re-examine all actions, including past executive orders, involving energy development and the Outer Continental Shelf. It called the industry's environmental record on offshore drilling _ now largely confined to the central and western Gulf _ ``impressive'' but made no recommendation for lifting any moratoria.

The report to be debated by the OCS policy advisory committee on Wednesday recommends that the Minerals Management Service, a part of Interior, identify the five ``most prospective areas for natural gas ... that industry would likely explore'' if allowed to do so in waters that are currently off limits.

``These five areas would provide the basis for a pilot to see if limited activity is possible in moratoria areas,'' says the recommendation.

As part of the pilot projects, the Minerals Management Service would:

_Develop seismic data to narrow down prospective areas for drilling.

_Develop environmental and social impact studies in case they are needed for lease development.

_Discuss with state officials and other parties ``to see if there are grounds for limited lifting of (the) moratoria'' in the pilot areas.

The report has caused anxiety among some members of Congress.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., and several dozen other House members were preparing a letter to the House Appropriations Committee urging that Interior's spending bill contain a rider guaranteeing continuation of the moratoria.

Capps said she's worried that an area off Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County, which is part of her district, would be one of the pilot projects. She said the other might be in the Eel River Basin off Humboldt County in northern California.

Diane Lawhon, a spokeswoman for the Minerals Management Service, emphasized that the recommendations are coming from an independent advisory agency, consisting mainly of state officials from coastal states. Although some Interior officials participate, they do not vote on recommendations, she said.

``If I were a gambler I would put all my money on this thing getting rubber stamped,'' said Charter of Environmental Defense. He said the OCS was heavily tilted toward production.

The gas subcommittee consists of 11 members, mostly state officials, but also two members from the petroleum industry. Attempts to reach the panel's chairman, Jerome Selby, an Anchorage, Alaska, energy consultant, were not successful late Tuesday.