Drilling to Continue

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Drilling to Continue

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Bush administration has rejected Gov. Gray Davis' plea to extend to California the same protections against oil and gas drilling that he granted Florida last week. "A major difference between Florida and California is that Florida opposes coastal drilling and California does not,'' Interior Secretary Gale Norton wrote Davis on the president's behalf.

California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols called that reasoning "100 percent wrong" and suggested that someone gave Norton "very bad advice," the associated Press reported.

Davis was sharply critical, noting that California has taken the federal government to court to block drilling on 36 undeveloped leases off the coast of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. A judge agreed with the state a year ago; a hearing on the Bush administration's appeal is set for this week.

Norton, in her letter, refers to the California coast as "a national treasure that should be protected through sound environmental policies." But she said it is premature for the federal government to step in to buy the California leases as it did in Florida. Bush announced plans May 29 for the federal government to spend $120 million to buy oil and gas rights in Florida's Everglades, and $115 million to pay oil companies to drop drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico.

The move follows lawsuits by oil companies that accused the federal government of breach of contract because procedural hurdles have blocked drilling there. Similar lawsuits have only recently been filed over the California leases, Norton said, so there hasn't been enough time to determine how much it would cost to buy back the leases.

She also cited the state's ongoing legal dispute over whether the federal government could extend the undeveloped oil leases without California's permission. Norton said California does not oppose coastal drilling because there are 77 active state and federal leases off the coast where more than 260 new wells have been drilled since 1990.