September 24, 2008

Democrats Will Let Drilling Ban Lapse

From staff and wire reports


Democrats have decided to allow a quarter-century ban on drilling for oil off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to expire next week, conceding defeat in a months-long battle with the White House and congressional Republicans that was set off by $4-a-gallon gasoline prices this summer.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., told reporters Tuesday that a provision continuing the moratorium will be dropped this year from a stopgap spending bill that would keep the government running after Congress recesses for the election.

Republicans have made lifting the ban a key campaign issue after gasoline prices spiked this summer and public opinion turned in favor of more drilling. President Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore drilling in July.

"If true, this capitulation by Democrats following months of Republican pressure is a big victory for Americans struggling with record gasoline prices," said House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Democrats had clung to the hope of only a partial repeal of the drilling moratorium, but the White House had promised a veto, Obey said.

The House is expected to act on the spending bill today. The Senate is likely to go along with the House.

"The White House has made it clear they will not accept anything with a drilling moratorium, and Democrats know we cannot afford to shut down the government over this," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Except for Rep. Bobby Scott, a Newport News Democrat, members of Hampton Roads' congressional delegation had pushed for ending the moratorium. Scott has argued that there is not enough oil offshore to make a significant dent in oil prices.

Rep. Thelma Drake, a Norfolk Republican, was among the most vocal House supporters of drilling. Early last summer, she joined a bipartisan group that proposed opening areas more than 25 miles offshore to oil and gas exploration. The buffer zone under that plan would have increased to 50 miles if the adjacent state requested it.

Drake said Tuesday that it was "absolutely irresponsible" for House Democratic leaders to let the moratorium expire rather than adopt the group's proposal. Along with permitting drilling for oil and gas, the legislation provided for massive new federal investments in the development of inland oil shale and alternative energy sources including wind, solar and hydrogen, she noted.

The House rejected the bipartisan proposal last week in favor of a Democratic plan that would have further limited drilling. Democratic and Republican senators were working last week on another alternative, but Obey's statement Tuesday suggested that effort is unlikely to come to fruition before Congress adjourns next week.

Virginia's two U.S. senators, Republican John Warner and Democrat Jim Webb, had co-sponsored a bill calling for offshore exploration - but not necessarily production - of natural gas, a position also advanced by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

All the bills would have provided a mechanism for states to share in what could be a $1 trillion bonanza of royalties to the federal treasury for offshore oil and gas leases.

By letting the moratorium expire without passing new legislation, lawmakers theoretically have opened the door to keeping all those royalties in federal hands. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California issued a statement insisting that the drilling debate is far from over. "The future resolution of offshore drilling will have to be addressed with a new president," she said.

"Nothing's going to happen this year," Drake agreed. With just a few months left in the Bush administration, there is not enough time for federal authorities to complete the complex process of leasing offshore areas before a new president takes office, she said.

The Interior Department's current five-year leasing plan includes potential leases off Virginia but probably would not be pursued unless the state agrees to energy development, which is considered unlikely without Congress agreeing to share federal royalties.

The Interior Department estimates there are 18 billion barrels of recoverable oil beneath the Outer Continental Shelf, about half of it off California.

While the ban on energy development will be lifted if the Senate goes along with the House action, it doesn't mean any federal sale of oil and gas leases in the offshore waters - much less actual drilling - would be imminent.

Democrats are expected to press for broader energy legislation, probably next year, that would put limits on any drilling off most of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Republicans are likely to fight any resumption of the drilling bans that have been in place since 1981.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has promised to make offshore drilling a priority if elected president. He has called for developing the oil and gas resources along all of Outer Continental Shelf and for the federal government to share royalties with states that go along with drilling.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, has said he would support limited drilling in certain areas - possibly the South Atlantic region - if it is part of a broader energy plan to shift the United States away from oil to alternative fuels and more energy efficiency.

This story is compiled from reports by The Associated Press and Pilot writer Dale Eisman.

what's at stake

Officials estimate there are 18 billion barrels of recoverable oil beneath the Outer Continental Shelf, about half off California. what's next

The House decision to drop the drilling ban also needs Senate approval. Even then, drilling would not be imminent.

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