WASHINGTON — With gas topping $4 a gallon, Republicans on Capitol Hill are reviving an issue that most Florida politicians and environmentalists had considered settled: offshore oil and gas drilling.
On Wednesday, a House subcommittee narrowly defeated a measure to allow oil and gas exploration as close as 50 miles off the entire U.S. coastline, including portions of the eastern Gulf of Mexico protected by a hard-fought 2006 compromise. The amendment is expected to come up again when the full House Appropriations Committee meets next week.
Gas prices are a top concern for voters, and Republicans see political opportunity as well as a chance to reverse the 30-year-old U.S. policy of restricting energy exploration off Florida, most of California and the mid-Atlantic. Republican leaders have begun to refer to the Democrat-led House as the "Drill-Nothing Congress," and members of the House and Senate have proposed revisiting the idea of drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Supporters contend that increasing domestic production will help tame prices.
"I believe the energy crisis in America is such that if we don't address it soon, we will face long-term liability to our national security and our national economy," said Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., who offered the drilling amendment Wednesday as part of an Interior Department spending bill.
The subcommittee voted it down along party lines, 9-6, which Peterson said he found surprising. He warned of dire political consequences for those who would block more domestic production.
"The American people understand we now have chosen not to use our energy," he said. "The Democrats will have to tell us why."
The U.S. House passed a similar Peterson-led measure in 2006, but the Senate blocked it. Congress settled instead on a landmark deal that prohibits drilling within 234 miles of Tampa Bay through 2022, in return for opening 8.3-million acres of the Gulf of Mexico farther offshore.
Despite the political pressure, however, Democrats appear to be standing fast, and believe they can make an equally persuasive argument: With only 3 percent of the world's oil supplies, the nation cannot drill its way to independence, and recent efforts to increase domestic production, including opening that area of the eastern gulf, have not brought lower prices. Instead, they are advocating a mix of conservation and alternative energy sources to ease the long-term strain.
In sentiments echoed by Democratic leaders and environmental activists, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., accused the oil industry and its allies in Congress of using the high prices "to scare the public into thinking coastal drilling offers a real solution to our dependency on oil."
"Even if there were significant supplies in Alaskan wilderness preserves or off the coast of Florida, which there aren't, does anyone think the oil companies would sell it to us for less than the global market price bid up by big investors, traders, speculators and the oil companies themselves?" Nelson added.
Democrats also noted that thousands of permits for drilling on federal lands and waters have been issued but have not yet been used.
The top two Republicans in the House — Minority Leader John Boehner and Whip Roy Blunt — issued statements condemning Wednesday's appropriations vote. But the third-ranking Republican, Adam Putnam of Bartow, says he supports the current protections for Florida. He noted in a recent interview that energy companies have yet to start drilling in the area opened in 2006, so there is no reason to open more of the gulf.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, also supported the Florida protections in 2006, and he opposes drilling in ANWR.
The federal Minerals Management Service estimates that about 80 percent of the nation's offshore gas and oil reserves already can be leased for drilling, though experts say those estimates are rough. The MMS also estimates that the waters Peterson's amendment would open may hold 86-billion barrels of oil, though not all of it is immediately accessible.
The United States, which imports about 60 percent of its oil, uses just over 20-million barrels of oil a day, the government says.
If Peterson's amendment fails to pass the full Appropriations Committee next week, he plans to introduce it on the House floor when the spending bill comes to the full House later this summer. Its prospects are mixed in the House, and poor in the Senate — at least for now.
"We're going to be forced to reconsider our preconceived notions," said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. "There is no doubt in the months ahead that Congress will begin taking steps to increase that supply, because the American public will demand it."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.