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GOP backs off idea to lift offshore drilling ban

House Republicans have abandoned plans to lift the ban on offshore drilling along most of the country’s coastline as part of new energy legislation.
/ Source: The Associated Press

House Republicans have abandoned plans to lift the ban on offshore drilling along most of the country’s coastline as part of new energy legislation, GOP congressmen said Monday.

Lawmakers from Florida and other coastal states objected to the proposal endorsed by the House Resources Committee. The House is expected to consider next week legislation aimed at expanding U.S. refinery capacity, including several provisions that critics say would ease clean air requirements on refineries and power plants.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., the Resources Committee’s chairman, said the offshore drilling provision, which he opposed, would be dropped from consideration as part of the energy legislation. Pombo prefers a less sweeping approach that would allow a waiver of the drilling ban to individual states if they request it.

Both proposals have been sharply criticized by environmentalists as well as lawmakers from some coastal states, especially Florida. They argue that the offshore areas outside the central and western Gulf of Mexico should remain off limits to natural gas or oil drilling for environmental and tourism reasons.

Two Republican views
Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who has argued that the country needs all the natural gas it can get and sponsored the proposal accepted by the Resources Committee, said he also had been told the provision would not be included in the energy legislation when it goes to the House floor.

Peterson said he will try to get the provision considered as an amendment. “I don’t know if I can,” he said.

Pombo said that while the country’s offshore energy resources should be developed, “the states should have ultimate authority over resource production, including the power to prevent it, in the deep waters off their coasts.”

He plans to pursue, separately from the upcoming energy bill, a proposal to allow for a waiver of the drilling ban if a state wants to develop oil or natural gas resources off its coast. Royalties from such leases would be shared equally between the federal government and state under Pombo’s proposal.

No Arctic refuge for now
Pombo and GOP leaders also have decided to avoid a fight over another contentious issue — drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska — in the upcoming energy legislation. The House repeatedly has approved opening ANWR, as the refuge is called, to oil companies, but each time the matter died in the Senate because of a threat of a filibuster.

Pombo plans to pursue the Alaska refuge drilling issue — and perhaps his offshore drilling proposal — as part of the budget process, said Jennifer Zuccarelli, spokeswoman for the Resources Committee.

Peterson won bipartisan approval for his proposal to end the bans on offshore drilling for natural gas in the Resources Committee. But it was quickly viewed as a “poison pill” by GOP leaders that could jeopardize the energy legislation.

“I can understand why Floridians would want the power to control their waters themselves,” Pombo said. He said his proposal would codify the bans in law, providing additional protection to states who want no drilling.

Environmentalists have complained that House Republicans are using the aftermath of the Katrina and Rita hurricanes, and the disruptions the storms caused to the Gulf coast oil and natural gas supplies, as an excuse to ending anti-drilling safeguards that have been put in place by presidents and Congress since 1981.

The drilling bans apply to virtually all waters of the Outer Continental Shelf outside of the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

Twenty-two House members and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sent a letter to Pombo objecting to Peterson’s proposal. Florida’s two senators also promised a filibuster of the energy bill if the provision were included.