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House Republican leaders agree to vote on an offshore drilling bill

WASHINGTON—Congress will attempt to pass legislation next week to allow offshore oil and gas exploration in new portions of the Gulf of Mexico, while barring rigs for at least 125 miles off Florida's Panhandle and for nearly 250 miles off its West Coast.

Conceding that it could be their last opportunity for years to expand any drilling off the nation's coast, House Republicans said Friday they're dropping their objections to a Senate-passed bill they had considered too limited. They'll push to pass it next week before they cede control of Congress to the Democrats.

House Republicans passed more controversial legislation that would have opened up the nation's coastline to offshore exploration unless local officials acted to stop it; citing environmental and political concerns, the Senate refused to pass that plan.

Industry groups have been pressuring House Republicans to take less than they wanted rather than nothing.

The vote is being scheduled for Tuesday. But supporters said it isn't a slam-dunk that they will get the two-thirds vote needed under House rules to pass the bill. That's the only way to guarantee that the legislation can't be amended or sent back to a conference committee with senators, moves that likely would doom its passage before Dec. 8, when both chambers plan to adjourn.

The measure, which the Senate passed last summer, would open 8.3 million additional acres in the Gulf of Mexico, a move that supporters say should increase natural gas supplies.

Under the agreement that Republicans hope will win final passage next week, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas would gain millions of dollars in royalties, a provision that's controversial among other states and the Bush administration, which have argued that the money should stay with the federal government.

"It protects not only our tourism industry and our unique environment, but also the military training sites in the Gulf of Mexico, where we test many of our sophisticated weapons systems," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who along with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mel Martinez, helped negotiate the Senate bill and praised the House leadership's decision to move ahead with it.

Still, national environmental activists were withholding support. Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club called the legislation "one last gasp for Big Oil and their allies in Congress" and predicted that under Democrats' control there would be no further offshore expansion.

Annie Strickland, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, said environmentalists plan to ratchet up the opposition, hoping that the bill could be defeated and that Democrats in January will turn their attention to ending oil subsidies and backing research into energy efficiency and alternative fuels.

"After the election and between Thanksgiving and Christmas we figured nothing much was going to happen but it's clear big oil is preparing for one last fight before getting kicked to the curb," Strickland said. "It's a difficult fight but one the conservation community has waged before."

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., one of the House members who favored opening up a larger area to exploration, said Friday, "If nothing else, though, the Senate bill does establish a worthwhile precedent upon which we will continue to improve next Congress, while at the same time freeing up a modest amount of natural gas.

"What concerns me is that a month from now, when natural gas finds its way past $12 again, folks out there will be scratching their heads as to why we didn't pass a more comprehensive bill," Peterson said. "I'll be one of them."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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