House to Vote on Senate's Offshore Drilling Plan

By Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The House is scheduled to vote today on a Senate plan for offshore oil and gas drilling that would open up new acreage in the Gulf of Mexico but that falls far short of an offshore drilling bill the House adopted earlier this year.

House Democratic leaders have decided not to take a position on the bill in order to avoid having to choose between different constituencies within the party's own ranks. Environmental groups oppose the drilling measure; the Sierra Club issued a statement saying that "it's time for Congress to stop appeasing Big Oil" and that "drilling is a bad deal for Americans."

Yet in the face of high energy prices, many Democrats support wider drilling to increase domestic natural gas supplies. And Louisiana Democrats avidly support the Senate bill because it would divert 37.5 percent of federal royalties to Gulf states for coastal restoration projects. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has been pushing especially hard for its passage.

House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) opposes offshore drilling and is concerned about the loss of federal royalties, said spokeswoman Jennifer Crider. But Pelosi will not try to rally the Democratic caucus against the Senate bill.

Earlier this year, the House voted for an offshore drilling plan that would have opened the Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters to oil and gas drilling for the first time in a quarter-century. Senate leaders told House negotiators that there was no chance that approach could pass the Senate and that the House would have to go along with the Senate's version. House negotiators, led by outgoing House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), resisted that compromise, but now key Republicans say they will accept the Senate version.

"What concerns me is that a month from now, when natural gas finds its way past $12 again, folks out there will be scratching their heads as to why we didn't pass a more comprehensive bill," Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.) said in a statement.

The bill, which will be considered on an expedited basis, cannot be amended and requires the support of a two-thirds majority of the House.

Separately, the White House confirmed on Saturday that President Bush is considering lifting a 17-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling near Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The area was put off limits to drilling after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in 1989.

The area, which includes Bristol Bay, is home to the world's largest wild salmon run along with commercial fisheries for red king crab, pollock and cod. According to the Sierra Club, commercial, sport and sustenance fishing in the region harvests more than 25 million fish a year and contributes $300 million to the local economy.

In 2003, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) persuaded Congress to remove protections for Bristol Bay, but it has remained off limits to drilling until 2012 under a directive by President Bill Clinton.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said, "As the Republican Party prepares to relinquish control of the House and Senate, they are attempting a last-minute giveaway of public lands as an early Christmas present to the big oil companies."

Drew Malcomb, a Minerals Management Service spokesman, said, "The north Aleutian Basin area is currently part of the five-year oil and gas leasing plan, but no drilling could occur there unless the presidential withdrawal was removed."

A few dozen environmental and tribal groups active in Alaska wrote an "open letter" to Bush on Friday, urging him to protect Bristol Bay.

Eric Siy, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, an advocacy group, said that many tribal communities depend on the area for subsistence fishing. For them, Siy said, drilling in Bristol Bay "is like burning the pews to heat the church."

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