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House votes to maintain offshore drilling ban

The House turned back an attempt late Thursday to end a quarter-century ban on oil and natural gas drilling in 85 percent of the country’s coastal waters despite arguments that the new supplies are needed to lower energy costs.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House rejected an attempt late Thursday to end a quarter-century ban on oil and natural gas drilling in 85 percent of the country’s coastal waters despite arguments that the new supplies are needed to lower energy costs.

Lawmakers from Florida and California led the fight to maintain the long-standing drilling moratorium, contending that energy development as close as three miles from shore would jeopardize multibillion-tourism industries.

“It’s a grievous assault on Florida and other (coastal) states,” declared Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., of attempts to end the drilling prohibitions that Congress first imposed in 1981 and has reaffirmed every year since.

The moratorium bars oil and gas development in virtually all coastal waters outside the western Gulf of Mexico, where most of the country’s offshore oil and gas wells are concentrated.

A measure, offered by Putnam and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., to continue the prohibition on drilling for natural gas — which some lawmakers argued was less of an environmental threat than oil — was approved 217-203 and inserted into a $25.9 billion Interior Department spending bill.

Earlier, the House, by a 279-141 vote, rejected an attempt by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, to lift the long-standing moratorium as it applies to oil drilling.

The offshore drilling issue dominated much of the debate over the Interior spending legislation. The overall bill was approved 293-128 and sent to the Senate.

‘This country has an energy crisis’
Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., argued that developing the offshore gas resources would produce none of the environmental risks — mainly the threat of a spill — associated with oil drilling. He won a victory when the drilling ban as it applies to natural gas was stripped from the Interior bill in committee.

“This country has an energy crisis,” said Peterson, arguing that access to supplies of gas beneath the waters of the country’s outer continental shelf will help drive down the cost of the fuel used widely by industry and for home heating.

“This is about the economy of America,” said Peterson, noting that the chemical industry and makers of fertilizer as well as other industries are talking of moving operations overseas because of high U.S. natural gas prices.

Coastal lawmakers weigh in
But lawmakers from Florida, California and other coastal states attacked the attempt to end a 25-year prohibition. They said an oil spill could devastate their states’ economies, especially tourism.

“Drilling for natural gas means drilling for oil,” argued Capps, citing industry views that where there is gas, often oil is found and probably would be developed. “Drilling three miles off our coast will not lower gas prices today or anytime in the near future.”

Peterson insisted that lifting the congressional moratorium wouldn’t mean drilling right away. A separate drilling ban on offshore areas outside the western Gulf has been put in place by President Bush and would not be affected by the congressional action, he said.

But Capps said if Congress lifts its ban, there would be growing pressure on the White House to do the same.

Fixing a mistake
The House, by a 252-165, approved a measure that would bar oil companies from receiving new oil leases unless they renegotiate past contracts that allowed them to avoid federal royalty payments even when oil prices soar.

The measure is aimed at correcting a mistake by the Interior Department that led to oil and gas lease contracts being issued in 1998-99 that did not include a suspension of royalty payments if crude prices reached a certain level. Since then, prices have soared well beyond that ceiling, but these companies still have been exempted from royalty payments, costing the government as much as $7 billion in lost revenues.

While the measure does not order these contracts to be renegotiated, the House action would put pressure on companies to do so, its supporters said. “Energy companies have been taking oil and gas from the American people for free and then selling it back to them at record prices,” said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., sponsor of the amendment.

In other action on the Interior bill, the House:

  • Approved a restriction on road-building in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
  • Barred the Interior Department from selling wild horses for slaughter as part of its wild horse and burro adoption program.
  • Told the Environmental Protection Agency not to implement a 2003 directive the environmentalists contend reduces wetlands protection.

Separately, an attempt to debate climate change — and for the first time bring up for a vote the idea of mandatory caps on greenhouse gases — was averted when a “sense of Congress” resolution on the subject was ruled out of order as part of the Interior spending bill.

The climate provision offered by Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., would have put lawmakers on record as agreeing that human actions were contributing to global warming and that carbon emissions into the atmosphere should be limited.

The Senate approved a similar sentiment as part of an energy bill last year, but it was removed in negotiations with the House on the bill.