Against strong industry opposition, the Senate has decided, 52 to 48, that the government should be allowed to learn whether its submerged lands offshore contain oil or gas before putting them up for lease.
The provision empowering the government to do exploratory drilling was added to a bill overhauling procedures for selling oil and gas drilling rights on the outer continental shelf extending 200 miles offshore. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 59 to 18 last night. It is still in committee in the House.
Last year a similar bill was killed in the House by a 4-vote margin, largely because it would have given the government power to dill offshore.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) offered the amendment to restore language deleted by the Senate Energy Committee. He said there should be assurance of a fair return on sale of resources owned by all the people.
"The people have a right to know by impartial evidence what the assets are in a given area," Jackson said. "I do not think it should be left to the oil companies."
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) said the companies know when they bid for leases where they are likely to find gas or oil. The government should have some idea what its property is worth before taking bids, he said. Under present policy, Bumpers said, the industry "comes in with its eyes opne, puts blinders on the Secretary of Interior and says, "This is what it is worth.'"
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who led the fight for the oil and gas industry in the Energy Committee, protested that Jackson's amendment would cost "billions" and would further delay production of oil and gas from submerged lands off the East Coast. It would be "absolutely insane" to replace "independent drillers with a government oil company," he said.
Both Virginia senators voted against th e amendment. Both Maryland senators voted forit.
The Senate also approved, 54 to 39, an amendment by Sen. John A. Durkin (D-N.H.) directing the administration to conduct an independent investigation, including drilling on-or-off-shore and on public and private land, if necessary to obtain reliable figures on the nation's oil and gas reserves. The government now relies on industry figures, and Congress has complained repeatedly that it should not have to rely on figures which might not always be reliable. For instance, there were charges last winter that nautral gas producers were holding back gas to win a higher price.
Sen. Clifford P. Hansen (R-Wyo.) said the Durkin amendment "represents a clear invasion of the rights of the private property owner."
The big oil companies suffered a setback when the Senate voted 57 to 33 to require that at least half the bids on offshore leases be by some method other than cash bonus, which is the current practice. Big oil now can win leases by bidding millions of dollars, which small operators can't match.
The Energy Committee has recommended that one-third of the bids be by an alternative method, such as agreeing to pay the government royalties on oil or gas discovered. This would permit a small operator to bid with no cash.
Johnston won approval of an amendment providing that the government should decide by lot which underwater tracts should be bid on by which method.
The Senate also cut down from $100 million to $75 million annual payments to coastal states to reimburse them for the environmental and other adverse impacts of offshore drilling. Most of the money would go to Louisiana.
The purpose of the bill is to provide more competition and otherwise see to it that the government gets its money's worth in selling offshore drilling rights.
The bill would give coastal states a large say in in offshore drilling policy, create a new oil spill liability system under which lessees where the spill occurred must pay clean-up costs and up to $35 million in damages, and require leaseholders to file exploration as well as development and production plans so state and federal government will know what they plan to do at each stage.
The bill also would require lessees to display "due diligence" in drilling and not sit on their leases waiting for a price increase.
Meanwhile, the House Ad Hoc Energy Committee agreed that next Wednesday it will begin a review of President Carter's energy package as approved piecemeal by five different House committees. The plan calls for a six-day study to vote on amendments that the coordinating committee may offer on the House floor. The bill is to be voted on by the House during the first week of August, if the schedule holds.
The bill is expected to go to the House floor under an arrangement that will limit the number of amendments that may be offered. But Republicans were assured by leadership spokesmen that amendments would be allowed on major issues such as price controls on natural gas.