With OCS Close to Dead, Legislators Start to Pin Hopes on Lame Duck

Lawmakers will try to revive stalled offshore drilling legislation in the lame-duck session of Congress now that efforts to reach a deal appear all but dead, assuming they can navigate what by all accounts is expected to be an unpredictable climate after election day.

While talks appeared to show signs of renewal late Wednesday and yesterday, they did not produce a breakthrough. An aide with the House leadership last night stopped just short of calling the issue dead until the lame duck. "There isn't a flatline yet, but it's close," the aide said.

Similarly, an aide with the Senate leadership said action this week is highly doubtful. "While we are always willing to talk and have made several offers to break the impasse it appears unlikely to be resolved this week," the aide said last night.

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) last night said the focus has shifted to passing expanded coastal drilling after the elections. "We will get it before the year is out," he said. "It is dead now."

And Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said an agreement is highly unlikely this week. "We will revive it in the lame duck and then make one more push, because if we do not get this pro-production bill through the Congress, the chances will evaporate," she said.

The Senate passed legislation in August that would open 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to new leasing, encompassing part of the Lease Sale 181 area and a region to its south.

The more expansive House bill passed in June would expand gulf access but also relax offshore leasing bans that now cover most coastal areas outside the gulf. The House plan allows drilling in all areas beyond 100 miles from state shores, while states would have the flexibility to allow or block drilling closer to shore.

House drilling advocates have offered a compromise plan that would allow several East Coast states to opt-out of coastal leasing moratoria, while Senate negotiators have said they could seek a smaller amount of additional leasing beyond what's in their bill (E&ENews PM, Sept. 8). Talks have also addressed how to reform the offshore royalty relief incentive program.

The strategy members have been negotiating over whether the House would accept the Senate-passed plan as it stands, while the other provisions would be added to another bill that is moving.

Debate in coming weeks will likely continue focusing on whether the Senate plan makes a large enough contribution toward increasing domestic supply. One key lawmaker -- House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) -- last night said it does not.

"We want to be flexible with the Senate but we want an OCS bill that really has some energy in it," he told reporters in the Capitol. "The Senate bill in its current form is not acceptable, and I would oppose it if it came up on the House floor."

Allowing the debate to continue into the lame duck creates new questions, with the dynamic likely to shift if the GOP loses its majority in one or both of the chambers. Asked whether lawmakers' ability to get a deal done gets better or worse in the lame duck, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said he could "make an argument either way."

He said that on one hand, there is a degree of momentum for legislation before the midterm elections. But he also said that Republican losses could create additional incentive to finalize a bill, noting GOP members tend to be more in favor of domestic production measures.

Copyright 2006 E&E Daily. All Rights Reserved. Visit E&E Publishing for a free trial.

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