U.S. House Votes to Keep Drilling Bans but Opponents Make Headway

The House last night voted to restore a ban on offshore natural gas drilling that covers both coasts and most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

But the offshore drilling plan won considerably more support than it did during last year's House showdown on the issue. That prompted industry and other supporters of wider coastal leasing to claim Congress is coming closer to relaxing longstanding outer continental shelf restrictions.

The chamber voted 217-203 in favor of Reps. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) and Lois Capps' (D-Calif.) amendment to the Interior Department spending bill to reinstate the coastal leasing ban, which has been in place since the early 1980s. Their amendment overturned Rep. John Peterson's (R-Pa.) successful effort in the Appropriations Committee last week to remove the gas drilling ban.

"This is a triumph for sound energy policy and protection of our priceless coastal areas from needless drilling," said Capps in a statement last night.

Peterson's natural gas plan was beaten by a much larger margin last year -- 157-262 -- when he offered it on the House floor. "I think it is a seismic shift in the position of the House of Representatives," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Chemistry Council, in a brief interview last night. "The tide is turning, and it is no longer if Congress will address the crisis, but when."

Similarly, the American Gas Association said the vote "signals growing support for re-examination of OCS restrictions." But others said the vote does not show House members are closer to changing the offshore leasing moratoria.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) last night said he thinks the vote is a reaction to high energy costs, arguing the willingness to back restrictions may ebb and flow. But he believes there is enough backing to keep them in place, and noted the opposition of several coastal governors to removing offshore bans.

"I don't think there is much of a signal there," he said of the vote.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) expects to address offshore drilling as part of a broader energy package the House leadership hopes to bring to the floor next month. House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) favors an approach that would allow coastal states to "opt-out" off leasing bans. Last year he negotiated on a plan with several Florida House members in an effort to see what level of coastal "buffer" they could live with.

Putnam yesterday attacked the Peterson plan but indicated he is open to some changes in OCS policy. He said the issue is best addressed through a "comprehensive" approach rather than Peterson's effort to simply lift the drilling bans.

The entire fiscal 2007 Interior and Environment spending bill passed 293-128 last night.

The debate

Opponents of Peterson's effort said it could damage coastal environments, restrict tourism and interfere with Gulf of Mexico military training needs. "We support the ban because we know our coasts are the economic engines of our communities and that is threatened by new drilling," Capps said.

They also questioned the viability of leases that only allow natural gas production, given that Peterson's plan leaves oil production bans in place, and said it could lead to crude production near state shores as well.

Peterson's backers said lack of greater natural gas supplies are harming several industries and driving up home heating costs. During the floor debate, advocates of the Peterson plan said several industries are hurt by natural gas prices. Prices have been on an upward trend in recent years, though they have come down substantially from peaks in late 2005.

Peterson said jobs in key industries are moving offshore to nations where natural gas is cheaper. Gas is used to make industrial goods including many chemicals and fertilizer, and other industries such as the pulp and paper sector and steel makers have also claimed that natural gas prices are harmful. "It is the mother's milk of everything we make in this country," Peterson said. "This is about the economy of America."

Peterson also said the plan was only aimed at beginning discussions over greater offshore access, and said he would not trying to allow drilling as close as three miles from state shores, which is where federal waters begin in some areas. "I can only start this debate tonight," he said. Actually allowing production would require several other steps, such as lifting presidential leasing bans in place through 2012.

But opponents said the plan represented an immediate threat despite Peterson's claim that his measure is only an opening salvo in a needed debate over offshore energy policy. "I can't depend on the president. The president is an oil man," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), responding to the claim that the executive branch leasing withdrawals would remain in place even if the congressional moratoria were lifted.

A separate amendment by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) to remove the bans for oil drilling as well as natural gas failed on a 141-279 vote.

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

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