The New Drilling Battle

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

More than a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico lies a tract of sea floor that is bigger than New Jersey and that oil and gas companies believe holds a trove of natural gas and a measure of salvation for corporate and residential consumers.

But the area, three-quarters of which is closed to development, also lies at the center of a fight in Congress over the future of offshore drilling, with billions of dollars at stake. The battle lines pit Republicans against Republicans, Democrats against Democrats, and industry against environmentalists.

Ever since a disastrous 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., drilling off U.S. coastlines has been a sensitive subject. For 25 years, a congressional moratorium, renewed annually, has barred exploration on 85 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, from three miles offshore, where federal waters begin, to 200 miles out, where U.S. jurisdiction ends. An order issued by President George H.W. Bush and extended by President Bill Clinton through 2012 provides additional protection.

"We don't need to sacrifice our beaches, coastal waters and economies to meet America's energy needs," says the Sierra Club, which favors alternative energy sources and energy-efficiency measures.

Yet the spike in natural-gas prices last fall has inspired a coalition of industrial users and a variety of lawmakers to try again to modify the moratorium, citing the harm high natural-gas prices do to American competitiveness and the benefits of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources. Drillers also want to win changes before the Interior Department's 2007-12 leasing plan takes effect.

Even as gay marriage and immigration grab headlines, top House and Senate members have been bargaining in private to reach a compromise over new contours for offshore drilling. Much of the haggling has been over the New Jersey-size tract, known as Lease 181.

At the moment, the chances of a compromise don't look good. But the wrangling provides a glimpse of how U.S. energy policy is made -- or isn't made -- when Congress and the White House try to balance big business interests, political supporters, environmental concerns and national energy needs.

The fight has made some strange bedfellows. President Bush, though seen as friendly to oil and gas interests, has done little to break the impasse, in deference to his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who have opposed offshore drilling, citing the need to protect the state's tourism industry from the harm a spill would do.

That has angered conservative Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.), who together with liberal Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) tried to strike the words "natural gas" from the moratorium, which would allow natural-gas wells within three miles of U.S. coasts. Without the support of either party's leadership, this political odd couple came within a handful of votes of prevailing. Now the two are seeking support to allow drilling at least 20 miles from shore, far enough to be out of sight of beach-going tourists.

Each of the lawmakers has taken on his own party. Peterson, who tried and failed to win Bush's support during a flight last summer on Air Force One, says the president argued that the most "doable" cure for tight-natural gas markets was to build more terminals for liquefied-natural-gas imports -- the opposite of what Bush argues when he cites foreign dependence as a reason for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska.

"I'm surprised because we have two oil people at the top," Peterson said of the administration. "Yet two states are controlling the most important part of our energy policy," he said of Florida and California.

In the Democratic camp, Abercrombie has criticized what he calls an "environmental Taliban" for opposing offshore natural-gas drilling, and 38 House Democrats defied their minority leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), and voted in May to keep the Peterson-Abercrombie change in the moratorium.

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