WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives voted 232-187 Thursday to permit new oil and natural gas exploration off the nation's coastlines in swaths that have been off-limits since 1981 because of environmental concerns.
The vote, in which 40 Democrats voted with the Republicans, reflected the political pressures of soaring fuel prices and a desire to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, especially from the volatile Mideast. Supporters argued that expanded offshore drilling would lower natural gas prices, help farmers and manufacturers, bolster national security and bring back jobs.
"We depend on foreign countries for 66 percent of our energy," said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who managed the drilling bill. "I'm telling you, it's time to stop saying no."
The Senate hasn't passed an offshore drilling bill, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said it's unlikely to allow new drilling off the East and West coasts. However, he said he sensed an "improving likelihood" that Congress this year will authorize deepwater exploration in portions of the Gulf of Mexico that now are off-limits to new drilling.
"The conventional wisdom was, it can't pass because it's an election year," said Tom Moskitis of the American Gas Association. "I think that's wrong. I think now it will pass because it's an election year."
If the Senate does pass a drilling bill, the two chambers would appoint negotiators to hash out a compromise between their two versions.
The plan to lift the moratorium on most drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf remains controversial from California to the Carolinas and in ethanol- and coal-producing states in between. Florida's senators have threatened a bipartisan filibuster, citing environmental and tourism concerns.
The House legislation, supported by the petroleum and gas industries and by agriculture and manufacturing groups, would allow companies to drill 50 miles or more from the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. It would allow states to pass legislation pushing their boundaries out to 100 miles or authorizing drilling less than 50 miles from shore.
A federal revenue-sharing formula to distribute royalties paid by energy companies would pump billions of dollars into Gulf Coast states and direct millions more to rural schools in other states. It also would spark exploration off the Virginia coast and set off political fights in California, Florida and the Carolinas.
Opponents charge that the bill is a federal giveaway to Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi at the expense of other states, and they say it detracts from efforts to develop more renewable energy sources. They also said it would redraw maps and rewrite payment schedules and rules for drilling programs to benefit energy companies.
"Republicans would put an oil well on the White House lawn if they could get away with it," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
One of the loudest opponents was the Republican chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, who warned colleagues: "This bill doesn't just allow offshore drilling. It's a complex bill with many unprecedented provisions that most members know nothing about."
Here's a look at how the House measure could affect different regions:
_California: Despite these concerns, the House bill may not have much impact on California, which is certain to bar drilling within 100 miles of its coast. Beyond 100 miles, the waters off California reach two miles, too deep for drilling.
Still, Pombo's bill has been a rallying cry for drilling opponents such as Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, Calif., who attacked the bill as a massive giveaway of federal money to induce states to lift their opposition to new offshore drilling.
"This is environmentally damaging and fiscally irresponsible," she said.
Earlier in the week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote Pombo opposing the bill.
"We believe that natural gas development 25 miles off the coast and crude oil development 50 miles off the coast will have significant adverse impacts on our ocean and coastal resources," he said.
_Florida: The bill split a usually united Florida delegation, with some previously anti-drilling legislators insisting that it was time to compromise or end up with little protection. The delegation succeeded in amending the bill to prevent drilling east of the Military Mission Line in the Gulf of Mexico, a vertical line that extends as far as 235 miles off the state's west coast and marks where the military exercises.
Gov. Jeb Bush has said he's comfortable with the legislation and is confident that the state legislature would vote unanimously to impose a 100-mile drilling buffer.
_The Carolinas: In the Carolinas, House members split along party lines. Even Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a coastal Republican who had been a strong defender of the moratorium, said he was voting yes to give states some control over the future of their coastlines.
"If we don't protect the states now," said Jones, whose district includes the Outer Banks, "who's to say the next president—of whatever party—won't come in and say, `We as a federal government are going to start offshore development and the states won't get any of the revenue.'''
Reps. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., whose districts also include coastal counties, voted no.
"Even a small accident near our coast could potentially turn into a huge and lengthy disaster for North Carolina," Butterfield said in a statement. "Our coastal communities are just too vital to North Carolina's economy and character to be placed at risk."
South Carolina's two coastal representatives, both Republicans, voted yes.
Even with the moratorium, thousands of platforms are operating off the nation's coasts. The petroleum industry says that offshore production amounts to about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, or 29 percent of domestic production. It accounts for roughly one-fifth of domestic natural gas production, according to statistics from the first half of 2005.
(Washington correspondents Lesley Clark, Tim Funk and David Whitney contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map