WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary William Clark outlined a plan Thursday that could cut back some of James Watt's massive program to lease virtually the entire U.S. coastline for offshore oil and gas exploration.
But Clark stressed his program does not alter the Reagan administration's basic policy of 'expeditiously' exploring the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf and Alaskan coasts for oil and gas.
The plan he detailed for a government advisory panel on Outer Continental Shelf development focuses on quickly screening out offshore areas that offer little energy potential or may not be suitable for drilling because of fishing interests or environmental and scenic concerns.
'The purpose of these changes in offshore leasing will be to increase state and public participation, to identify and resolve issues much earlier and to better focus on areas where the oil industry truly seeks to search and to produce,' said Clark.
Clark had hinted earlier in the week that the administration was drawing up changes in the plan unveiled by Watt in 1981 to lease oil and gas rights to 1 billion offshore acres over five years.
The extent to which Clark's plan will scale back Watt's initiatives remains unclear, since Clark pledged Thursday the administration is 'committed to expeditiously exploring the Outer Continental Shelf and to encouraging production, while protecting the ocean and coastal environments.'
Sarah Chasis of the private Natural Resources Defense Council in New York said Clark 'essentially reaffirmed the Watt program.'
'While some of the changes announced are a step in the right direction, they are very limited in nature and are unlikely to affect the overall magnitude and pace of leasing under the Watt 1 billion acre program,' she said, speaking for the environmental group.
Highlights of Clark's program include:
-'The oil and gas industry will be expected to tell us more precisely and at the beginning of the lease process where they wish to lease.'
-'A concerted effort will be made to avoid dragging through the 22-month planning process those areas where the level of industry interest is minimal and where conflicts exist with other uses. We will attempt to resolve state, environmental and military conflicts much earlier in the total process.'
-The Interior Department will increase the number of public hearings seeking comment on environmental impact assessments for individual leasing areas.
-Communication with the states and other interested parties will be strengthened.
A key to Clark's plan involves the fourth month of the 22-month leasing process, when the government defines an area of 'leasing interest' to be reviewed in an environmental impact statement.
'If a given tract does not meet the essential tests of potential energy value vs. other multiple use values -- such as fishing, military concerns or environmental or scenic considerations -- then a tract can be dropped from further consideration in that fourth month,' said the interior secretary.
Clark's announcement came the day after the Supreme Court stepped into the controversy with a ruling that reduces the power of states to control energy development off their coastlines.
The case was brought to the high court by California, protesting its lack of say in the selling the leases off its coast. The state lost when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority that states may be heard only in the later stages of oil exploration and development.
The ruling is expected to prompt a battle in Congress to amend the law and give states the authority they claim.