House approves measure that would end offshore oil and drilling ban.

Published 6:46 pm Friday, June 30, 2006

The House voted Thursday to end a quarter-century offshore drilling ban and allow energy companies to tap natural gas and oil beneath waters from New England to Alaska.

Opponents of the federal ban argued that the nation needed to move closer to energy independence and insisted the gas and oil could be taken without threatening the environment and coastal beaches. They said a state choosing to keep the moratorium could do so.

The measure was approved 232-187.

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The bill’s prospects in the Senate were uncertain. Florida’s two senators have vowed to filibuster any legislation that would allow drilling within 125 miles of Florida’s coast. Other senators from several coastal states also have strongly opposed ending the drilling restrictions.

Many lawmakers fear that energy development could despoil coastal beaches, should there be a spill, and threatens the multibillion-dollar recreation and tourist economies of states where offshore energy development has been barred since the early 1980s.

An attempt by a group of Florida lawmakers to allow states to maintain a protective zone of 125 miles was rejected.

“Our beaches and our coastline is what is critical to Floridians,” declared Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla. “We should not be sacrificing our economy, our environment for a little oil and gas.”

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a leading proponent for lifting the moratorium argued that drilling still would be prohibited within 50 miles of shore and states could extend the ban up to 100 miles.

He ridiculed the bill’s critics as “opposing everything” when it comes to increasing domestic energy production. “You can’t say no on everything,” Pombo proclaimed.

Lois Capps, D-Calif., said states would have to overcome numerous hurdles to continue the drilling restrictions, including having state legislatures and the government seek such protection every five years.

The bill also would revamp how the federal government shares oil and gas royalties with states, producing a windfall for Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama that currently have oil and gas rigs off their shores.

The eastern and western Gulf of Mexico produces virtually all of the country’s offshore oil and gas, with waters off the eastern Gulf, both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and much of Alaska under the drilling moratorium.

Under the bill, states’ share of royalties would increase to 50 percent over 10 years and eventually could rise as high as 75 percent. States currently get less than 5 percent of royalties from offshore oil and gas leases in the central and western Gulf.

The Interior Department estimated that revenue sharing changes could cost the federal government as much as $69 billion in lost royalties over 15 years and “several hundred billion dollars” over 60 years.

The White House issued a statement saying it favors much of the bill, but strongly opposes the changes in royalty revenue sharing which it said “would have a long-term impact on the federal deficit.”

The Interior Department estimates there are about 19 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 86 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath waters currently under drilling bans from New England to southern Alaska.

Supporters of the drilling moratorium argue there’s four times that amount of oil and gas available in offshore waters open to energy companies, mainly in the central and western Gulf of Mexico and off parts of Alaska.

The country uses about 21 million barrels of oil a day.

“We should not be opening all of our coasts to oil drilling when we have not taken the first step to conserve oil,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who wanted to put into the bill a requirement to increase automobile fuel economy, but was prevented from doing so.

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., argued that developing more U.S. energy resources, especially more natural gas, is needed to ease supply shortages that have seen natural gas prices soar and America rely increasingly on oil imports.

“This is not about oil companies,” insisted Peterson. “This is about America competing. … We’re the only society that has said we’re going to lock up our resources.”