Environment: Good News for Santa Barbara

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In a calculated move to help pay for the Viet Nam War—without raising taxes—the Johnson Administration in 1968 invited oil companies to lease about 453,-600 acres of federal waters for offshore oil and gas drilling in California's Santa Barbara Channel. The oilmen paid $624 million for 70 leases. But just as the Nixon Administration took office in 1969, a massive underwater blowout began slopping 1,000 bbl. of oil a day over miles of Santa Barbara's white beaches, killing marine creatures and raising a huge public outcry.

Last week President Nixon heeded the message. The President asked Congress to cancel 20 federal leases on 198,200 acres and establish a marine sanctuary in the Santa Barbara Channel. If Congress approves, the Government will compensate the oil companies for the 20 leases by selling crude oil from its federal reserve near Bakersfield, Calif. Courts will determine just how much the Government will pay. Since the area has not been fully explored, the oilmen may receive more than the $178 million they put out for the leases.

The plan calls for three wells to continue operating in the sanctuary in order to reduce underwater pressure, which otherwise might cause further oil seepage. More important, drilling will continue near the sanctuary under 50 oil leases that are not affected by the Nixon proposal. "Any drilling on those leases will pose a continuing threat to the Southern California coastline," says California's Democratic Senator Alan Cranston. With Congress in a pollution-minded mood, the Nixon Administration may find its gesture applauded but deemed inadequate.