Politics & Government

No interest so far in drilling off Washington coast

WASHINGTON — In the Pacific Ocean off Washington state there are salmon, whales and a major fault zone that could trigger a cataclysmic tsunami. But, apparently, there isn't much oil or natural gas.

State officials say they haven't "heard a peep" from anyone wanting to drill off the coast. Even so, one Washington congressman, Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, finds himself in the middle of the heated debate over offshore drilling that has erupted during the past several weeks on Capitol Hill.

As chairman of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee, Dicks oversees annual spending for everything from the National Parks to the National Endowment for the Arts. Dicks' appropriations bill also includes the 27-year-old moratorium on drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf that many Republicans want to eliminate.

The GOP effort, aided by the White House, has disrupted the appropriations process in the House and become a major issue on the presidential campaign trail.

"This is purely a political matter," said Dicks, clearly frustrated the bill he and his staff have spent weeks on has suddenly become the flashpoint between Democrats and Republicans over what to do to calm public anger over gasoline prices that have shot well above $4 a gallon.

Since taking control of Congress in January 2007, Republicans say, Democrats have pursued a "sham" energy policy that has done nothing to ease the price at the pump. They have called for increasing domestic supplies, including opening up the Outer Continental Shelf, along with the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee and additional federal lands, to oil and natural gas drilling.

According to industry estimates, federal lands and offshore areas contain enough recoverable natural gas to meet the heating needs of 60 million households for 160 years and enough oil to produce gasoline to fuel 60 million cars and fuel oil for 3.1 million households for 60 years.

"Gas prices have risen 75 percent since Democrats took the majority in Congress," said House Republican Leader John Boehner. "Democratic leaders are too beholden to radical environmentalists, who want gas prices to rise even more, to allow a vote -- any vote -- on proposals that would actually make a difference."

But Democrats counter that 80 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf is already open to leasing, that 68 million acres of land, roughly the size of Colorado, are already under lease but have not been developed, and that "we can't drill our way to energy independence." They quote the Energy Information Administration, part of the federal Department of Energy, as saying offshore drilling wouldn't affect the price at the pump until 2030, and even then the impact would be "insignificant."

"People are desperate for a solutions and this isn't it," said Dicks. "There are thousands of leases that aren't being used. If this is such an emergency, why aren't they using them?"

Oil and natural gas resources off the Northwest coast are minuscule when compared to Florida and California. A 2001 Interior Department study estimated there might be 2.35 trillion feet of natural gas off Washington and Oregon. The same study estimated there was 180 trillion feet of natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico and 15 trillion feet off California.

Several oil companies expressed an interest in exploring deep-sea areas off the Northwest coast in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Reagan administration, at one point, considered leasing 30,000 acres for exploration and drilling.

"There isn't much interest in Washington state," said Dave Norman, the deputy state geologist. "The Washington coast ranks real low in potential, almost near the bottom."

Norman said exploratory holes and seismic testing off the coast have never found much, even though there have been oil seeps discovered on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula.

In eastern Washington, three deep holes have been drilled in the Columbia Basin during the past several years and a new one is being drilled in Klickitat County.

"They haven't found anything, but they are still studying the results," said Norman, adding that the holes have been drilled through 10,000 feet of basalt rock.

Before World War II, there was a field near Rattlesnake Mountain that produced commercial quantities of natural gas, he said.

The initial moratorium on offshore drilling covered just Washington state and Oregon but was later expanded to cover the entire Outer Continental Shelf, said Dicks.

Republicans have unsuccessfully sought to lift the moratorium over the years. In 2006, the Republican-controlled House actually voted to ease the ban, but the measure stalled in the Senate. Oil-patch Democrats have consistently voted to eliminate the ban, but moderates and Florida Republicans have traditionally opposed such a move.

But given the current price of gasoline, vote counting has become extremely tricky.

"This is a very difficult political issue for some people," said Dicks.

Presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain proposed lifting the ban less than two weeks ago, and President Bush endorsed the idea. McCain previously opposed offshore drilling as had Bush's brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama opposes lifting the moratorium.

The issue erupted just as Dicks' interior appropriations bill was to be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee. With the outcome of the vote on the drilling ban uncertain, the bill was lifted and rescheduled for consideration after Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess.

Asked whether Democrats have the committee votes to defeat the Republican effort to eliminate the moratorium, Dicks said, "We are counting. I don't twist arms, I plead with people to do the right thing."

Asked whether he still expected his bill to come up as currently planned on July 9, Dicks said, "It's still scheduled. But obviously schedules can change."

Last week,(6/26/2008) Republicans sought to force a vote on the drilling ban by trying to substitute the interior bill for another appropriations bill the committee was considering. Chairman Dave Obey, D-Wis., abruptly adjourned the meeting and warned later that if Republicans persisted his committee would put off consideration of all appropriations bills until after the election.

"What they did was a stunt. It was unprecedented in the 32 years I have been in the House," Dicks said. "I have my fingers crossed that we can defeat these amendments and go forward with my bill."