WASHINGTON—The Senate voted Tuesday to open 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration in a bid to boost domestic production and stabilize natural gas prices that have driven up the costs of home heating, agriculture, manufacturing and alternative fuel.
But supporters cautioned that it may not become law unless energy and manufacturing lobbyists convince the House of Representatives to scale back its broader ambition to scrap a 25-year-old nationwide moratorium on all new offshore drilling from Alaska and California to the East Coast.
"We have to have the response from the interested groups that have been so keen on having this happen, to now go and say, `Hey, this is all we can get done, and it's better to do this than to do nothing,'" said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
After the vote, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, congratulated the Senate for taking a "good first step," but they emphasized that "House Republicans strongly support our bill" as superior. They said they look forward to crafting a compromise with the Senate.
Eighteen Democrats joined 53 Republicans in the 71-25 Senate vote.
Those Democrats were courted by their own leaders with a number of arguments: that the legislation would affect only a limited area of coastline, which could be offset by new money for coastal restoration; Democrats in oil-producing Gulf Coast states could be punished at the polls if the bill failed; something must be done to bring energy prices under control; and former President Clinton had supported expanded Gulf drilling.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., lead sponsor of the legislation with help from Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, predicted it would mark the beginning of the end of the moratorium—the very scenario that drove environmental activists to oppose the Senate bill.
"The precedent is going to be broken here," Domenici said. "We're going to show nobody will be harmed and America can prosper."
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada admonished, "Senator Domenici should declare victory and keep quiet." Reid said Democrats' support eased passage of the bill, adding: "The Democratic caucus is very clear that there will be no more offshore drilling. This is it. Don't go back to the drill, drill, drill theory."
John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers and former Republican governor of Michigan, said in an interview that he and other industry representatives haven't decided whether they will urge House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., to accept the Senate's bill or to push for more.
"At the end of the day, we need the supply," Engler said. "We want to work something out."
The House-passed bill would allow drilling off all coastal states starting 50 miles out. State legislatures would be allowed to push the buffer to 100 miles. Senate leaders say their members would reject that.
Under the Senate bill, new exploration could occur in a stretch of the Gulf of Mexico about 125 miles south of the Florida Panhandle, 235 miles west of Tampa and 325 miles from Naples.
Supporters say it could yield close to 6 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.2 billion barrels of oil. Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas stand to share 37.5 percent of royalties under the legislation, with the federal government getting the rest.
The moratorium would be extended around the rest of Florida's coast until 2022. The extended moratorium did not apply to other states, and some senators said that was the key to their opposition.
"If it had extended the federal moratoria from 2011 to 2022, I would have voted for it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who opposed the legislation.
Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton called the bill "a special interest boondoggle."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that he was supporting the legislation "as a way of showing faith on this side of the aisle that when dramatic damage is not done to the environment . . . we are willing to look at increasing supply of fossil fuels in the United States."
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the vote was a way for lawmakers to "face the very powerful environmental community and say, `You know, you're just flat out wrong. . . . We can produce energy and we can produce it cleanly for Americans and provide it abundantly at a reasonable price."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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