Gulf of Mexico Leasing Plan Headed for Senate Adoption

E&E Daily

The Senate is poised to sign-off this week on legislation opening 8.3 million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, but prospects for the measure after the vote are clouded by major differences between the Senate and House offshore bills.

A vote on cloture, or ending debate, that requires 60 votes for passage is scheduled for today in the late afternoon. Both supporters and opponents of the Senate bill say passage appears likely. Late last week the bill gained a key Democratic supporter in Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and also has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The plan differs from House-passed offshore drilling legislation that would allow access to currently restricted areas outside the Gulf. The Senate plan is much more narrowly crafted to require leasing in the eastern Gulf's Lease Sale 181 area and a tract to its south.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and others call the Senate plan the most expansive measure the Senate can agree to, and Reid has pledged to rally the votes to back a filibuster if the measure came back from a House-Senate conference with any changes. And Frist personally told Nelson he will resist any changes in House talks that weaken protections for Florida in the measure.

Yet the House leadership and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) are resisting calls to simply adopt the Senate plan. That opposition continued late last week when the Resources Committee circulated a cartoon of bawling child -- representing the Senate -- riding a tricycle and sporting a cap with a propeller on top. The crying child proclaims, "But I don't want to play with the House!!"

At the same time, more senators are calling on Frist to resist agreeing to any changes in potential talks with the House. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) wrote to Frist on Friday indicating they support the Senate Gulf drilling plan with a caveat: "We want you to be aware that we do not view this vote as a step in the direction of relaxing the moratorium on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts," the senators wrote.

"We would strongly oppose any bill to come before the Senate, be it a conference report or otherwise, which threatens the beaches and ecosystems of our coastlines with unacceptable oil and gas drilling activities," they added.

The House plan would lift offshore drilling bans that now cover both coasts and much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and replace them with a system under which drilling would be allowed in all areas beyond 100 miles from state shores, while drilling is also allowed from 50 to 100 miles from state shores unless state legislatures and governors oppose it. Drilling is banned for good within 50 miles unless states seek to allow it.

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