A delegate at the Republican National Convention holds a "drill now" sign. (Photo: Getty Images)
After months of debate about expanding offshore oil and gas drilling, the House passed legislation Tuesday that could open up large areas off U.S. coastlines to energy production.
The bill (HR 6899) passed 236-189 despite the objections of Republicans who said it would do little to boost offshore oil and gas production. President Bush threatened a veto.
A Republican attempt to stall the measure was defeated. The chamber voted 191-226 against a motion to recommit the bill to the Natural Resources Committee.
After watching Republicans gain political traction in recent weeks with calls for more offshore drilling, Democratic leaders hope the legislation will provide political cover for moderate members of their caucus who face tough re-election fights.
Democrats touted the bill as a compromise that would expand domestic production and invest in alternative energy sources. It would allow drilling beyond 100 miles off U.S. shores and give states the option of allowing production beyond 50 miles from the shores. It proposes major incentives for renewable energy, building efficiency and advanced technologies for coal-fired power plants.
"I don't know why my Republican colleagues can't take yes for an answer," said co-sponsor Gene Green, D-Texas. "If you want to drill in our country, this is the bill."
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the bill represents a change from the policies of Republicans and the Bush administration.
"The bill that we've bought to the floor will help end the Bush-McCain energy policies of the past," he said.
Republicans complained they had no input. The measure was first released late Monday.
"We have a responsibility to defeat this legislation," said Don Young, R-Alaska. "It was conceived in the dark. Who the father is, I do not know."
The bill represents a concession for Democrats who have resisted calls for any new offshore drilling. But the House leadership has acknowledged that the measure was probably necessary, because Republicans otherwise were prepared to stall an appropriations package that will keep the government running next year.
The current drilling moratorium has been renewed in annual appropriations legislation since 1982, and the House GOP said it would fight the fiscal 2009 package if it included an extension of the moratorium.
The Senate could take up its own energy legislation in the coming days, but prospects for working out a final version with the House appear difficult. The Senate is not expected to pass the House bill in its current form.
"There's always the possibility of compromise as long as people actually want to get a bill," said Mary L. Landrieu, D-La. "But the problem is, the Speaker couldn't want to get a bill very much since she didn't talk to Republicans about designing one."
The bill would keep certain areas off-limits to petroleum companies, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. A last-minute provision also would make the historic Georges Bank fishery off-limits to drilling, at the request of New England lawmakers.
The motion to recommit the bill essentially would have replaced the measure with another (HR 6709) backed by John E. Peterson, R-Pa., and Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii. Their bill would repeal the moratorium on drilling in the Pacific, Atlantic and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, while allowing states to restrict drilling between 25 and 50 miles offshore.
Abercrombie urged the House to vote against the motion despite his role in crafting the alternate bill. "What I'm hoping is that the other bill passes ... that we then go to the Senate and say, look, we have a considerable consensus here."
Republicans called the Democratic drilling bill a sham. They said states would be unlikely to allow drilling near their shores because the legislation would not give them a share of the royalties from energy production.
"These backdoor disincentives will prevent states from taking advantage of their energy resources," said Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
"At a time when American families are in need of genuine relief from the effects of high fuel prices, this bill purports to open access to American energy sources while in reality taking actions to stifle development," the White House said in a statement of administration policy.
The legislation would use new oil and gas royalties to offset the cost of incentives designed to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy or carbon capture and sequestration. It would require utilities go generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The bill also would extend tax credits for wind and solar energy. It includes new tax breaks for coal projects that capture carbon, fueling stations for natural gas vehicles and energy conservation. Spending on these provisions would be offset by rolling back tax subsidies for oil companies.
The bill would establish new ethics requirements for the Minerals Management Service, a division of the Department of the Interior that oversees the leasing program. This follows an Inspector General report that found federal employees engaged in sexual misconduct and illegal drug use with oil industry workers.
And an 11th-hour addition to the bill would lift a moratorium on an oil shale leasing program for Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, but only if a state decided to move ahead with leases. This provision was a priority for Jim Matheson, D-Utah. Petroleum companies are experimenting with new technology to extract potentially vast amounts of energy from oil shale.