House Lifts Offshore Drilling Ban

The Associated Press
Friday, June 30, 2006; 9:01 PM

WASHINGTON -- Congress has taken a major step toward allowing oil and gas drilling in coastal waters that have been off limits for a quarter-century.

Still, a battle looms in the Senate over the issue. And the Bush administration's support for the legislation, which was approved Thursday by a 232-187 vote in the House, is lukewarm.

The House bill would end an Outer Continental Shelf drilling moratorium that Congress has renewed every year since 1981. It covers 85 percent of the country's coastal waters _ everywhere except the central and western Gulf of Mexico and some areas off Alaska.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a leading proponent for lifting the ban, said he believes a majority of the Senate wants to open the protected waters to energy companies.

Asked about White House opposition to some parts of the bill, especially a provision that would give tens of billions of dollars to states that have drilling rigs off their coasts, Pombo said, "I dare them to veto this bill."

"They don't like us giving money back to the states. I think it's right," Pombo told reporters after the vote. Forty Democrats joined most Republicans in favor of ending the drilling moratorium.

In the Senate, the measure is likely to face a filibuster from Florida senators and possibly others from coastal states that fear offshore energy development could threaten multibillion-dollar tourist and recreation businesses if there were a spill.

The Senate is considering a limited measure that would open an area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, known as Lease Area 181, that comes within 100 miles of Florida. It is not under the moratorium. Even that is unlikely to pass unless its sponsors get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster from the Floridians.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he would pursue efforts to open the Lease 181 Area. The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, also of New Mexico, criticized the House-passed bill, saying it would eventually create "a huge hole in our federal budget and undermine environmental protections on our lands and off our coasts."

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said Friday that Senate GOP leaders and Domenici have agreed on a new revenue-sharing plan that would funnel 37.5 percent of future royalties from Area 181 development to the four energy producing Gulf states, and also open an additional 6.3 million acres south of Area 181.

But that proposal does not address the Florida senators' concerns and may generate new opposition to Domenici's bill from senators opposed to changing the royalty distribution formulas.

Domenici later said in a statement, "I've had a number of productive meetings with Sen. Landrieu. ... We've made progress ... but we're not there yet."

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