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OIL DRILLING IS POLITICAL GRENADE FOR BUSH

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President Bush must be afraid of the decision he has to make on allowing offshore oil exploration in environmentally sensitive areas.

All the information he requested was delivered in January. But so far, Bush has made no decision, and he has carefully kept his own counsel on which way he is leaning.Bush knows he is sitting on a political grenade.

At stake is the future of offshore oil exploration, especially off the coasts of Florida, North Carolina, Alaska and California. Oil companies have paid $617 million for federal leases to drill exploratory wells there. New lease sales have been postponed.

The politically powerful oil industry insists that drilling is safe. No major environmental disaster has been caused by drilling in the United States since the Santa Barbara spill of 1969, said Joe Lastelic of the American Petroleum Institute. Since then a host of environmental regulations have been imposed on the drilling industry.

Without constantly searching for new sources of oil and gas at home, Lastelic argues, the United States will become increasingly dependent on foreign oil imports.

Last week, Energy Secretary James Watkins warned that American domestic oil production has dropped to a 25-year low while consumption - supplied by imports - grew.

Before entering politics President Bush made his fortune as an oil entrepreneur who pioneered new technology in offshore oil drilling. He, more than any previous president, would be expected to take an oil industry point of view.

But it's not that simple.

Bush sees himself as an environmentalist. During the campaign, he stood on California beaches and promised to protect them. In his first State of the Union message, he imposed a moratorium on offshore leases and exploratory drilling until the matter could be studied.

Offshore oil exploration never has been politically popular - especially in California and Florida. With the environmental movement rolling to new heights as Earth Day 1990 approaches April 22, the dangers of oil exploration will gain notoriety.

Environmentalists are latching onto the huge Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and a number of smaller spills around the country as proof that the oil industry cannot be trusted to protect the environment. Lastelic says the oil industry is frustrated that the public links tanker accidents with offshore drilling.

The president cannot ignore politics. Governor's seats are open in California and Florida this year, and they are the first and fourth most populous states in the country. They are also two of the fastest growing, and they will be adding congressional seats after the 1990 census. The party that holds the governor's seat will influence how congressional districts are redrawn.

Perhaps that's why Bush has postponed making a decision for months after he received recommendations from the Energy Department. He knows he has a grenade, and he's waiting for just the right moment to pull the pin.

"The president has this on his desk, and he's going to announce it whenever he thinks he's ready for it," said Henson Moore, deputy energy secretary in charge of oil production. "What the president's going to do, only the president knows."

Secretary of Interior Manuel Lujan floated an idea last week that might indicate how the president is leaning. He proposed that the federal government share with the states the money it obtains from the lease sales for offshore drilling.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, financially strapped state governments might be enticed. But whether the Bush administration can buy off the environmental movement remains to be seen.