House Votes to Continue Offshore Drill Ban

By H. JOSEF HEBERT
The Associated Press
Friday, May 19, 2006; 8:54 PM

WASHINGTON -- Despite talk of an energy crisis and the need for independence from foreign oil, Congress seems to be in no mood to open more of the country's coastal waters to energy development.

The House late Thursday rejected an attempt to end the quarter-century ban on oil and natural gas drilling that has been in effect for 85 percent of the country's coastal waters from Alaska to New England despite arguments that new supplies are needed to lower energy costs.

Lawmakers from Florida and California, who led the fight to continue the drilling moratorium, said they feared energy projects as close as three miles from shore could jeopardize multibillion-dollar tourism industries in their states.

"People don't go to visit the coasts of Florida or the coast of California to watch oil wells," Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said.

The issue, which dominated debate on a $25.9 billion Interior Department spending bill, saw the sides split largely along geographic, not partisan lines. Republicans and Democrats from coastal states opposed lifting the drilling restrictions.

The fight to open the waters off both coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico to energy companies _ at least for natural gas _ was led by Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa.

He called natural gas "the mother's milk" of an array of industries from chemical and fertilizer companies to the makers of bricks, and said if there isn't more gas found domestically, prices will remain high and industries will be forced overseas where the fuel is cheaper.

"This is about the economy of America," said Peterson, pleading with fellow lawmakers to end the offshore drilling moratorium that Congress first imposed in 1981 and which it has been extended every year since. It covers virtually all outer continental shelf waters outside of the western Gulf of Mexico where U.S. offshore oil and gas wells are concentrated.

"Natural gas beyond three miles belongs to all Americans and we are entitled to use it," argued Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, whose district, like Peterson's, lies far from the ocean waters that were at the heart of the House debate.

Most lawmakers made clear they felt otherwise.

First, the House rejected by a lopsided 279-141 vote an attempt by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, to lift the long-standing moratorium as it applies to oil drilling.

Then the House voted 217-203 to put back into the Interior bill the language _ stricken last week by a committee at Peterson's request _ that also continues the ban on natural gas drilling in those same waters.


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