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Democrats rethink offshore oil drilling

WASHINGTON — With voters anxious about high energy prices and the elections right around the corner, House Democratic leaders announced Tuesday that the House would vote this week on a comprehensive energy bill that would expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off Florida.

The measure, which is being drafted, marks a sharp shift for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democratic leaders, who for months have resisted Republican demands to open more of the outer continental shelf to oil and gas exploration.

It also is one of at least four energy bills expected to get a vote in the House or Senate over the next two weeks, before Congress adjourns near the end of the month through the Nov. 4 elections. Yet prospects are slim that any of them will pass both chambers of Congress.

The bill Pelosi announced would revoke existing tax breaks for oil companies, encourage the development of alternative fuels and set new requirements for the use of renewable energy — all in keeping with longtime Democratic goals — but it would also end the 26-year-old federal ban that prohibits oil and gas drilling off most of the nation's coast, and likely would upend a 2006 law that keeps oil rigs some 230 miles off Tampa Bay and 125 miles off the Florida Panhandle.

Pelosi said she is able to support the measure because the royalties oil companies pay for drilling rights will be funneled into research and development for alternative fuels and conservation. The bill also would extend tax breaks for solar and wind production that are set to expire this year.

"This comprehensive energy legislation is the result of serious compromise among Democrats to bring down gas prices and invest in a clean, renewable future," Pelosi said.

Democrats hope to regain the political momentum on energy, an issue Republicans feel confident they own, as well as quell grumbling among their own moderate and conservative members who are under increased pressure back home to vote in favor of more offshore drilling.

But many other Democrats believe their leaders are getting bullied into taking a useless and potentially environmentally dangerous position. They point to U.S. Energy Department data showing that expanding offshore drilling will have a minuscule effect on gasoline prices, and that any impact on domestic oil and gas supplies would be years away.

Under one version of the bill, drilling would be expanded primarily off the coast of the Southeast, where local politicians have expressed an interest, and in the eastern gulf, which is believed to hold easy-to-reach gas and oil reserves.

Details are still being worked out, but the version being discussed Tuesday would permit exploration 100 miles off Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. State legislatures then could opt to allow drilling within 50 to 100 miles.

Drilling would not occur off the Northeast or the Pacific Coast.

That's similar to a plan being pushed by a bipartisan group of 16 senators, though the House version gives Florida more say. Under the Senate version, drilling automatically would be allowed as close as 50 miles from Florida's Gulf Coast.

House Democrats met in a closed session for 1½ hours Tuesday and emerged without clear consensus about the boundaries. Democrats from Florida later met privately to discuss what they could accept. After an hour, they still lacked consensus.

"We cut a deal in 2006," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, referring to the bill that keeps rigs at least 125 miles from the Panhandle and 230 miles off Tampa Bay. "I'm with the deal."

Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said the bill overall boasts many good features, and the Floridians may have to compromise. He said several other options for expanding offshore drilling were being considered, though he and other members, including Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, declined to discuss them.

"Florida's Legislature and the governor are elected also," Klein said. "If the bill goes down the direction of allowing states to opt-in, and they decided they want to go down that path, they're accountable to the voters."

Yet Republicans insist the Democratic bill won't open enough coastal waters to exploration. They accused Democrats of proposing the bill only so they can go home and tell voters they tried to increase domestic energy supplies.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, vowed to continue to push Democrats to hold a vote on the Republican measure, which would give all coastal state legislatures, including those on the West Coast, the authority to allow drilling within 50 miles of shore.

(Florida's Gulf Coast, however, would remain off limits unless the Defense Department permits drilling there. The eastern Gulf of Mexico serves as a major training range for U.S. air and sea forces.)

"The time for gimmicks and Band-Aids, fig leaves and half-measures are over," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the third-ranking House Republican.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Democrats rethink offshore oil drilling 09/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 5:37pm]

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