Democrats Start on Energy Plan

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

After absorbing months of criticism for inaction on the high cost of gasoline, House Democrats yesterday began assembling broad energy legislation that allows greater drilling off the Atlantic coastline and Florida's gulf shore.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her leadership team, emerging from a nearly two-hour meeting with the Democratic caucus, offered a plan that marks a policy reversal for Democrats. It would allow more offshore drilling in exchange for additional funding for renewable resources.

Pelosi said the ideas were a framework for legislation that could come to a vote by the end of the week. "It will put us on the path to make America energy-independent," she said.

The most controversial provision, which drew fire from conservatives and liberals alike, would permit drilling 100 miles off the Atlantic coasts from Virginia to Georgia, and in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida's western coast.

The limit could be reduced to 50 miles if each state's governor and legislature endorsed the move, said Democratic aides and environmental activists briefed on the plan.

For oil producers, the biggest bounty would be in Florida's gulf waters, which are protected by federal law that keeps drilling rigs 125 miles offshore. Gov. Charlie Crist (R-Fla.), following the lead of President Bush and GOP presidential nominee John McCain, has reversed his opposition to offshore drilling.

Drilling is prohibited within 200 miles of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a moratorium set by Congress that expires at the end of the month.

Pelosi, who spent June and July rejecting calls for more drilling, tried to split the difference between environmentalists worried about the effect of offshore drilling and conservative Democrats concerned that $4-a-gallon gasoline prices this summer have left them vulnerable to GOP opponents in the November elections.

Republicans rejected the plan, saying the limits placed on the Atlantic and gulf coasts would seal off areas closer to shore that could produce the most oil.

"It leaves most American energy under lock and key when we should be doing everything possible to expand energy production, increase conservation and promote development of clean, renewable energy," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said in a statement yesterday. "It would permanently lock up 80 percent of our nation's offshore energy resources -- holding hostage billions of barrels of American oil."

Some environmentalists were equally critical of the plan. "We're extremely disappointed that the House leadership is considering lifting coastal protections. It's a hoax," said Anna Aurilio, director of the D.C. office of Environment America.

After the House recessed for five weeks in early August, Republicans staged a near daily protest on the chamber floor, demanding that Pelosi call lawmakers back for action on comprehensive energy legislation.

Democrats, who hope for a vote by Friday, are selling the legislative package to liberals in their caucus as the best way to promote clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, which would receive increased funding from revocation of tax breaks for oil companies and from royalties from new drilling.

"So more drilling, no subsidies, and we want our royalties, in order to pay for investments in renewable energy resources, make a strong commitment to [a heating assistance program for the poor] and the land and conservation fund," Pelosi said.

She said Democrats also are considering a loan-guarantee program of $25 billion to $50 billion to encourage the auto industry to build vehicles that run on clean energy. Sen. McCain (Ariz.) and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), support the program. They are competing vigorously for votes in Michigan, which relies heavily on automotive manufacturing.

Senate Democrats expect to move separate legislation next week being crafted by a bipartisan group that also would allow more offshore drilling, including in Florida's gulf. But Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) indicated yesterday that he might limit debate on it to as few as three votes, a tactic that frequently has led to Republican filibusters of key legislation.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company