WASHINGTON—The Senate is poised to pass legislation that would open a vast portion of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration, after a landslide vote Wednesday allowed debate on the measure to advance over environmentalists' objections.
The vote to proceed was 86-12, showing broad support for the legislation, which could give energy companies and Gulf Coast states their best prospects for new oil and gas exploration since a nationwide moratorium on offshore drilling was imposed in 1981.
The Senate bill would open 8.3 million acres of the central Gulf of Mexico to drilling in an area 125 miles south of Florida's Panhandle and 230 to 325 miles west of its western shore. The Senate is expected to pass the legislation next week.
The House of Representatives already passed a far broader bill that would end the moratorium everywhere and permit oil rigs and drilling anywhere at least 50 miles off any coast unless a state legislature moved its dividing line to 100 miles from shore.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a key supporter of the Senate bill, said there was no chance this year that the Senate would agree to the House's plan, which is feared by environmentalists and many lawmakers in Florida, California and other states along the East and West coasts. Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., said the House wouldn't accept the Senate bill.
Martinez urged the House to pass the Senate version rather than seek leverage for the House bill in a House-Senate conference committee this fall. Otherwise, he said, "we probably won't have a bill. ... It's not, like, open for bidding."
With the House set to leave at the end of this week for a month-long recess, it could be September before prospects for an agreement that can clear Congress come into focus.
Supporters of the Senate legislation on Wednesday championed its prospects for fostering cheaper natural gas and more domestic oil, at a time when high prices are hurting manufacturers and consumers. They also highlighted the bill's relative restraint.
"We can't drill our way out of this situation, but neither can we conserve our way," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, one of four Gulf Coast states—the others are Texas, Mississippi and Alabama—that stand to reap millions of dollars in federal revenue-sharing under either the House or Senate plan. Of the Senate bill, she said, "It's not an Atlantic bill. It's not a Pacific bill. It's a Gulf Coast bill."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he planned to support the bill, but environmental critics maintain that it would open a Pandora's box and could start the undoing of the nationwide offshore moratorium.
"For the Senate to actually vote to eliminate one part of the nation's moratorium would be a terrible precedent," said Mark Ferrulo, the director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group.
In a conference call earlier this week with officials of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who's facing re-election in a Democrat-dominated state whose voters generally oppose offshore drilling, worried that even the Senate bill "could lead to the weakening of the moratorium that has protected the California coast for 25 years."
The Senate bill would tap into at least six times as much liquefied natural gas as the nation imports, and more oil than the reserves of Wyoming and Oklahoma combined, supporters said.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, inadvertently bolstered its opponents' concerns that his measure is only the opening wedge in a broader goal of eliminating the entire moratorium for other U.S. coastlines. Domenici said he didn't disagree with the House approach, he just didn't think it could pass the Senate this year.
"There's bigger future things we can do, but for right now, impact in the next couple of years, this is it," he said. "This is the first step."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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