Senator blocks nominations over oil price speculation rules

WASHINGTON — A U.S. senator has blocked three nominations to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, saying that the federal agency has failed to regulate oil markets even as the price of gasoline hits new highs almost daily.

"I want them to do their job," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Cantwell's action came as the Senate began debate Thursday on a bill designed to rein in speculation on the markets in which crude oil futures are traded. The senator and others think that speculators have driven up the price of oil and could be responsible for more than $1 of the cost of a gallon of gasoline at the pump.

Though some Republicans are sympathetic to the need to provide tighter control over energy markets, they say that any energy legislation should include lifting the congressional moratorium on offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.

Cantwell and most Democrats oppose lifting the offshore-drilling ban. They quote the Department of Energy as saying that offshore oil and gas wells wouldn't come online for seven to 10 years and the impact on prices would be insignificant. Democrats also say that oil companies already have more than 68 million acres along the outer continental shelf and on other federal lands under lease that haven't been drilled on.

Republicans counter that there are abundant resources offshore and polls show that a majority of Americans support more drilling on the outer continental shelf.

"All we are getting from the majority is silence," said New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, the ranking Republican on the Senate Natural Resources Committee. "The American people are calling for solutions, and they are getting excuses."

Cantwell has been one of Capitol Hill's toughest critics of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and has been calling for months for tougher regulation of oil and gas markets.

Two of the three nominees already serve on the commission and would be reappointed if they're confirmed: acting Chairman Walter Lukken, a former general counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee, who'd become the full-time chairman, and Bart Chilton, a former lobbyist for the National Farmers Union who worked in the Agriculture Department during the Clinton administration.

The third nominee is Scott O'Malia, a former adviser to Domenici on oil and gas issues and a one-time executive with Mirant, an Atlanta-based energy company.