* Proponents are eager to pass legislation expanding oil and natural-gas drilling off U.S. shores.
* Negotiations with coastal-state lawmakers could prove pivotal.
Amid continuing concerns over steep gas prices and American dependence on foreign oil, Congress is moving ahead on proposals to expand energy production off the U.S. coastline, including in areas where drilling has been banned for nearly 25 years. But a tangled patchwork of competing philosophical and regional agendas is complicating the effort.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in early March approved a bipartisan bill aimed at producing more oil and natural gas in federal waters, and proponents are hopeful for quick floor action. In the House, a Resources Committee markup is expected in coming weeks, and the issue could see floor action during a broader energy debate in late June.
Although the Bush administration and many Republicans on Capitol Hill support expanded offshore drilling, and some Democrats and environmental groups oppose it, the fight doesn't break along clear partisan lines. Members of both parties who represent coastal states hold the wild card.
Just Another Day at the Beach? A teenager does a handstand in Alabama waters with an oil rig looming in the distance
Fearing a threat to tourism and the marine ecosystem, members of three state delegations -- California, Florida, and New Jersey -- have introduced or will introduce legislation permanently barring oil and natural-gas production near their shores. They and other cautious lawmakers from coastal states are seeking special protections under any plan to allow additional drilling in U.S. waters. Meanwhile, members from Gulf Coast states, eager for funds to rebuild areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, are looking for a guaranteed share of the drilling revenue. Negotiations with all of these coastal-area lawmakers will prove pivotal to proponents of expanded offshore drilling.
Since 1982, Congress has enacted annual moratoriums prohibiting new offshore drilling beyond where it occurs now in limited areas off the coasts of Alaska, California, and four states along the Gulf of Mexico (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas). Separate presidential bans expire in 2012.
In an effort to avoid a complicated, contentious debate over the federal moratoriums, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and ranking member Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., crafted legislation requiring the Interior Department to hold an oil and natural-gas lease sale within one year for an area of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, called Lease Sale 181, that is not covered under the bans.
The committee approved the bill by a 16-5 vote on March 8, and Domenici is pushing for a Senate floor debate. Opening Lease Sale 181 to drilling "is so much an American issue right now," he said in an interview. "It stands tall above all these other issues."
The legislation would allow drilling in about 2.7 million acres and could produce as much as 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Interior Department. The department has proposed a five-year leasing plan for 2007-2012 to allow drilling in about 2 million acres of Lease Sale 181, a smaller area than the Domenici-Bingaman bill calls for.
On the floor, the legislation faces a threatened filibuster by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is sponsoring a bill with Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., to put up a nonproduction buffer of up to 260 miles around their state's coastline. The Domenici-Bingaman bill essentially grants Florida a 100-mile buffer.
Other Democrats who champion environmental issues could also try to derail the Domenici-Bingaman bill. During last year's energy debate, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was among those who opposed requiring the Interior Department to inventory oil and natural-gas resources on the Outer Continental Shelf. "The underlying bill could very well lead to more offshore oil drilling, could devastate my state and its way of life," Boxer said at the time. "I do not see how it makes sense to say, on the one hand, we are protecting our beautiful coastline with moratoria and then allow the inventory to go forward…. To me, it is almost a moral issue, that we protect the beauty we have been given, this God-given beauty."
For their part, Gulf Coast lawmakers want a bigger share of the revenue from oil and natural-gas production in federal waters, which currently goes to the U.S. Treasury to be divvied up among all states. "Louisiana's goal, and the Gulf Coast's goal, is to get a fair share of these revenues," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in an interview. Budget hawks and Bingaman, however, oppose targeting the revenues in this way.
On March 16, Landrieu supplied the lone Democratic vote that enabled the Senate to approve its nonbinding fiscal 2007 budget resolution, 51-49. Her support came after she worked with Domenici and other Senate GOP leaders to insert a provision calling for a Gulf Coast relief package of as much as $10 billion, to be financed by excess revenue not currently projected from offshore energy production, by proceeds from drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and by sales of broadcast spectrum.
Congress would still need to authorize this "reserve fund" for the Gulf Coast. And, of course, GOP efforts to allow ANWR drilling are highly controversial and went down to defeat during last year's budget debate. Nevertheless, Landrieu said that Domenici and Republican leaders have assured her that they will fight to authorize the reserve fund this year; excess digital spectrum sales alone may provide the promised $10 billion.
In the House, Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., plans to schedule a markup within the next month on legislation expanding offshore energy production, but he is still choosing among several competing GOP plans. "I think the way I'd [prefer to] do it is, have one bill be the base bill, and then put it in for amendments and let it work its way out," he said in an interview.
Pombo wants a committee vote soon to boost the chances of getting an offshore-production plan through Congress this year. "I don't know if we can pass it in the House. I don't know if we can conference with the Senate. I don't know if the Senate can pass a conference bill," he said. "We should try. We should try to pass something."
Last year, Pombo introduced legislation allowing states to opt out of the federal oil and natural-gas production bans and providing more revenue to coastal producing states.
Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., a Resources Committee member who represents part of the hurricane-damaged New Orleans area, is sponsoring a bill granting states as much as 75 percent of the revenue gained from drilling off their shores. "This year is critical" for the legislation, Jindal said in an interview. "I think every day that you get away from the storms makes it a little bit more difficult."
Jindal predicted that Bush administration officials "very likely" will support giving states a guaranteed share of the revenue for new production that occurs in areas that are not now leased and where revenue is not projected by the Congressional Budget Office. One energy lobbyist suggested that the funding would be couched as "coastal impact assistance," rather than called "revenue sharing," to try to appease budget hawks.
Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., another Resources Committee member, is sponsoring a bill that lifts the natural-gas production ban entirely. He has been circulating a fact sheet to colleagues warning that the Cuban government is sanctioning offshore oil and natural-gas drilling within 60 miles of Florida's southern coast and may lease drilling as close as 45 miles from the Florida Keys to energy companies in Canada, China, Venezuela, and other countries.
"Why do we deprive the right of Americans to have energy off their coasts when Cuba is doing it?" Peterson said in an interview. "It doesn't make any sense."
By: Goode, Darren, National Journal, 4/1/2006