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Offshore drilling: don't forget the public interest

In commencing offshore oil drilling at a site some 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts -- in the Georges Bank region -- the Shell Oil Company is undertaking the first steps in an awesome operation that could have profound economic and political consequences not just for the Northeast but for the US as a whole.

The reason, of course, is that oil companies finally won exploratory rights in Georges Bank -- one of the most fertile and richest fishing areas in the US -- only after being forced to agree to the most stringent safety and environmental rules. How responsibly the dozen or so companies involved go about their offshore operations in this area of rough seas will be important in gauging the extent to which other coastal areas are ultimately opened up to seabed drilling.

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In fact, the whole issue of offshore drilling is coming to a head under the Reagan administration after years of delays, challenges, and court actions from environmentalists. Interior Secretary James Watt has indicated that he favors speeding up the sale of oil and gas leases on one billion acres of ocean bottom controlled by the US government. Since the early 1950s during the Eisenhower administration only about 20 million acres have actually been leased for drilling purposes. Mr. Watt would open up some 200 million new acres to potential drilling each year through 1986, although only a small portion would actually be leased. If Mr. Watt is successful in winning congressional acceptance of his plan -- and this in itself will require tough bargaining -- this would represent a sharp departure in direction from the Carter years. Even the oil companies do not want to move as quickly as Mr. Watt in commencing leasings.

How important are potential offshore oil and gas finds? The US Geological Survey estimates that 34 percent of the 83 billion barrels of potential oil reserves and 28 percent of the 594 trillion cubic feet of potential natural gas in the US are to be found in offshore waters. A number of oil firms, for example, have spent large sums bidding for promising tracts in the Santa Maria Basin off the central California coastline, where environmentalists and the state have opposed drilling as posing serious risk to marine life and the coastline.

The California leasing question has become so politically charged that Mr. Reagan is expected to postpone the final decision until later this year.

Legitimate environmental concerns about offshore drilling should be answered only by the most scrupulous safeguards. State officials, as Mr. Watt has promised, must be given maximum opportunity to participate in leasing plans. Tough lease rules should be designed that are absolutely appropriate to the area of exploration, since water and ecological conditions will differ. But among the most elementary safeguards that should be considered in leasings -- all now part of the Georges Bank agreements -- are the following: establishing comprehensive monitoring programs to determine the impact of drilling on fish life and marine organisms; imposing restrictions on drilling mud flows; requiring oil firms to provide compensation for damage to fishermen; having oil cleanup equipment near rigs.

Appropriate leases -- with the public receiving a fair market value for its oil and gas reserves -- should be issued only on the condition that the government and oil companies take every conceivable step to ensure protection of person, marine life, and coastline. The water environment, including fish stocks, is a long-term renewable resource, as contrasted with oil and gas finds, which represent more short-term, nonrenewable resources. America's coastlines and offshore waters are a precious heritage that must be preserved for future gen erations.

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