Offshore drilling gets boost


WASHINGTON -- Spurred in part by higher energy prices, the House of Representatives voted yesterday to effectively rescind a decades-old federal moratorium on offshore drilling for oil and gas, a vote proponents hope will be the first step toward opening the outer continental shelf to more fuel exploration.

The bill, which passed 232-187, would permit states that agree to offshore drilling to share in the royalties from the leases, which would create a financial incentive to spur development.

Supporters said the measure would give states control over their shorelines and an opportunity to debate the balance between energy needs and coastal protection.

"Any state will be able to stop production from occurring within 100 miles of its shores should it choose to do so," said Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who is a co-sponsor of the bill. "If state officials decide to allow production, they will share in the royalties."

Opponents argued that sending royalties to states that permit drilling would rob the federal government of billions of dollars of revenue and would effectively transfer billions of dollars from the federal budget to four Gulf states that permit offshore drilling.

"This legislation tempts states to sell off their natural heritage by presenting a false choice between federal dollars and their coastlines," said Rep. Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who voted against the bill. "Even worse, the closer to shore a cash-strapped state allows drilling, the more money it stands to receive. In other words, the more intrusive the drilling, the larger the payoff."

It is not clear how much support the legislation will have in the Senate, where a more modest bill - permitting drilling in one area more than 100 miles off the Florida coast - has been stalled because of the threat of a filibuster from coastal-state senators.

Energy issues tend to align coastal lawmakers against those from inland and oil-producing states, regardless of party affiliation.

Generally, California and Florida lawmakers have opposed offshore drilling. But that alignment has begun to crumble as oil prices have soared.

Forty Democrats joined with 192 Republicans to pass the House bill; 31 Republicans joined 155 Democrats and one independent in voting against it. Fourteen lawmakers were absent or did not vote.

All eight Maryland representatives, including Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest, voted against the bill. Bartlett, who represents Western Maryland, is a vocal opponent of new drilling. He favors ending the nation's dependence on oil through the development of alternative energy sources.

"I am not going to vote for any drilling anywhere until we have a rational plan for transitioning to renewables," Bartlett said during the debate on the bill.

Gilchrest, whose district includes the Eastern Shore, shares those concerns and worries that opening the door to offshore drilling could have disastrous consequences for Maryland.

Environmentalists see little possibility that Maryland lawmakers would agree to drilling off the state's coast, but nearby states, including Virginia, would be likely to approve it.

"The problem that Marylanders have is that while we might not allow this, if Virginia allows it, it would have a potentially negative effect on the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland coastal waters," Gilchrest said. "And the effect it's going to have on the country's energy policy would be major."

The Bush administration generally supports opening coastal waters to drilling but has not pressed the issue. In a statement of administration policy issued while the House was debating, the Office of Management and Budget expressed reservations about the effect of the House measure on the federal budget.

"Increased revenue-sharing for existing leases creates no additional production incentive," the statement said. "The administration strongly opposes the bill's revenue-sharing provisions because of their adverse long-term consequences on the federal deficit."

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, issued a statement welcoming the House action but stopping short of endorsing the bill's approach.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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