By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Congressional Democrats bowed to political pressure yesterday and agreed to let the ban on offshore oil drilling expire, a decision that would allow exploration just three miles off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines unless the next president reinstates an executive branch order that prohibits drilling.
Democrats said they gave in to White House demands rather than risk a showdown over the "continuing resolution" Congress must pass to fund the federal government through March. A new drilling moratorium would have been included in that wide-ranging measure. Provisions seeking money for home heating assistance for the poor and a loan program for the auto industry remain in the bill.
"At least temporarily, the moratorium is lifted. This next election will decide what our drilling policy is going to be," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reversed his long-held opposition to offshore drilling. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has supported efforts at compromise that include drilling limits ranging from 50 to 100 miles offshore.
The most ardent drilling opponents, who contend that exploration of the outer continental shelf puts oceans at risk without producing short-term relief from gasoline prices, said there is still time for the next president and future Congresses to work out a new compromise before oil rigs are erected within sight of the nation's coasts.
Drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico will remain prohibited within 125 miles of the shore under a separate provision in the 2006 energy bill.
The Democratic reversal on drilling came as the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve a $100 billion extension of tax breaks, including incentives for renewable energy sources and the annual patch that will prevent millions of households from receiving higher tax bills under the alternative minimum tax.
But House Democrats continued objecting to the financing for those tax provisions and plan to alter the language later this week, prolonging a fight over legislation that industry and environmental activists have championed all year.
The congressional drilling moratorium, which dates to the early 1980s, has been included in the annual appropriations bills that fund federal agencies, with this year's ban set to expire Tuesday. In July, President Bush lifted an executive branch moratorium. Congressional Republicans spent the summer holding rallies and protests demanding that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) allow votes on more domestic oil production.
"Lifting these outdated bans is a long-overdue but crucial step toward American energy independence," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said yesterday.
Pelosi had hoped to include alternative measures in the continuing resolution that would have allowed drilling within 50 miles of either coast if state legislatures approved, but she faced objections from the White House.
"The White House made it clear that any new drilling provision was a non-starter," said Drew Hammill, Pelosi's spokesman.
As part of the continuing resolution, Democrats gained concessions for an additional $5 billion in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, more than $23 billion for disaster relief and as much as $25 billion in loan guarantees to help the auto industry produce more hybrid vehicles.
The continuing resolution is expected to be approved by the House today and the Senate later this week.