July 15, 2008

Drilling Plan Brings Gusher Of Debate

By Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal By Michael Coleman Journal Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to rescind an executive ban on U.S. coastal oil and gas drilling triggered a round of fingerpointing Monday on Capitol Hill that left Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici -- as well as New Mexico's U.S. Senate candidates - - on opposite sides of the debate.

The president said Monday that he would lift a ban on offshore drilling enacted by his father, former President George H.W. Bush. But the president's action won't have the weight of law unless Congress acts, too.

"The only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress," Bush told a Rose Garden news conference. "Now the ball is squarely in Congress' court."

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, standing next to Bingaman at a news conference shortly afterward, rejected the president's proposal that Congress overturn its own drilling ban, reauthorized every year since 1981. Reid suggested that lawmakers could have more impact on gas prices by targeting Wall Street speculators. Reid said that U.S. oil and gas companies already have access to millions of acres, and that they aren't drilling it.

"We want oil and gas companies to drill for oil, and they've been given tens or millions of acres both onshore and offshore," Reid said.

Republicans contend that many of those areas aren't suitable for drilling.

Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the president was playing politics with the issue of gas prices Monday. He said opening the Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling would have little or no impact on gas prices.

"It's very misleading to suggest that the solution to high gas prices is opening more (offshore) leases," Bingaman said. "This idea that Congress is standing between the American people and lower prices at the gas pump is pure fabrication."

Domenici, the Senate energy panel's ranking Republican, said the offshore drilling issue should be put to a vote in Congress. Reid said that is not likely to happen.

"Does it seem to you like it does it to me that Harry Reid is either scared -- chicken -- to have a vote, or he's just decided he's going to dictate (policy) to the United States Senate?" an unusually animated Domenici told a press conference. Domenici also said offshore drilling is much safer than in the past. "No one is going to get hurt from offshore drilling anymore," Domenici said. "It doesn't happen. The last (environmental disaster) we had was 30 years ago, and the technology we used then was so frightening you couldn't even get a permit to use it today," Domenici said. Bush contends offshore drilling could yield up to 18 billion barrels of oil over time, although it would take several years for production to start. Bush also says offshore drilling would take pressure off prices over time. In addition, the president has proposed opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, lifting restrictions on oil shale leasing in the Green River Basin of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming and easing the regulatory process to expand oil refining capacity. Bingaman said he supports offshore oil and gas drilling, but objects to the way Bush wants to go about it. Under the Bush plan, individual coastal states would have the ability to initiate drilling off their coastal waters, or reject it. They would also keep a percentage of the revenues. Bingaman contends that money should go into the federal Treasury.

"We need a national energy policy; we don't need every state legislature or governor making our policy," Bingaman said. "This is a national resource, and to the extent we can we should develop it for national reasons.

The drilling issue also divided New Mexico's candidates for the U.S. Senate seat Domenici will retire from early next year. Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, said, "Responsible drilling can be part of the solution, and I have supported legislation to force oil companies to drill on the 68 million acres of federal land they have leased and not used."

"President Bush wants to give more public land to big oil, but this would only reward them for sitting on America's oil supply and waiting for the price to go up," Udall said in a statement. "Forcing them to drill on the land they already have access to will do more to boost supply quickly."

Rep. Steve Pearce, the Republican candidate for the Senate seat, called Bush's proposal a "positive step forward.""Americans need energy today," Pearce said in a statement. "One day, with significant advances in technology to store wind and solar power, alternatives can make a significant impact. But today, Americans drive oil and gas cars, and they need relief now."

Congressional Democrats, as well as some Republicans from coastal states, have opposed lifting the prohibition that has barred energy companies from waters along both the East and West coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The first President Bush, as well as former President Clinton, opposed drilling in those waters, and Congress has upheld its own ban on coastal drilling for 27 years. The goal is to protect beaches and coastal states' tourism economies.

(c) 2008 Albuquerque Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.