The bill revising the rules for drilling for oil on the outer continental shelf popped out of a House Rules Committee pigeonhole yesterday and will be taken up by the House later this week.
Last October the Rules Committee refused to clear the bill for House action, saying it was too controversial to take up during the last week of the session. It is backed by the administration but strongly opposed by the oil-gas industry.
Yesterday's 8-to-6 vote sending the bill to the floor was supported by eight Democrats and opposed by four Republicans and two oil-state Democrats. Rep. John B. Anderson (R-III), whose announced switch to support last week assured that the bill would be cleared, was not present for the vote.
The bill would update a 25-year-old law to provide more competition within the industry and environmental protection as offshore drilling spreads out of the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast.
The Interior Department has scheduled opening of bids Jan. 31 on leases to drill for oil and natural gas on 882,000 acres of submerged land off the New England coast. Massachusetts has filed a court suit asking that sale of the leases be put off until the bill is enacted to provide environmental protection.
Opponents, led in the Rules Committee by Rep. Gillis W. Long (D-La.) and John Young (D-Tex.), contend that the bill would cause further delay in oil production by provoking lawsuits and imposing a complicated set of regulations oil producers and the government would have to follow.
Long said the present law works well. "The trouble is you're trying to fix something that ain't broke," he told supporters of he bill.
Sponsors of the bill say present procedures discriminate in favor of major oil companies. Most leases are now sold to bidders who offer the biggest cash bonus, which favors the biggest companies. The bill would require that at least half the leases be sold under different procedures, such as offering to pay the government a stated percentage of profits.
The bill would empower the government to make independent exploration of underwater lands to get some idea before selling the leases what they might be worth. These two provisions are among those most strongly opposed by the industry.
In addition, the bill would give states more say in regulating drilling off their coasts, would make payments to states adversely affected by drilling and would make lessees or tanker operators responsible for the first $35 million damages caused by an oil spill. A new federal fund would pay for damages above that amount.
Both House and Senate passed a similar bill in the last Congress but the House killed the final conference report. The Senate passed the bill again last year.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) met with a group of Republican members of the deadlocked energy conference committee to search for a compromise on natural gas pricing.
Knowledgeable sources said Jackson and others have discussed limited, periodic price rises - a so-called "floating cap" which would be, in effeet, phased deregulation.
In another action on energy, the Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement opposing deregulation of natural gas, because "the worst burden. . . would fall on the shoulders of low income families, elderly, minorities, the poor and the unemployed."
The statement placed the 16 black representatives with the National Urban League on the issue, and opposed to the NAACP, which has called for the government to remove price controls on new oil and gas.
Deregulation would cost consumers $70 billion in purchasing power, the caucus statement said, and would cost 180,000 to 360,000 jobs, driving the unemployment rate up as much as 0.4 percentage points.
The caucus also called for a "strong emphasis on energy conservation, saying, "It is a fallacy that continued expansion of energy-producing industries and of traditionally wasteful practices . . . is the only way to assure real economic growth . . .