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Senators vote to open drilling in eastern gulf


WASHINGTON -- With political anxiety on Capitol Hill rising along with gasoline prices, the Senate voted yesterday to open a large section of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

The bill, approved 71-25, must be reconciled with a broader House measure that would relax the decades-long ban on drilling in most coastal waters, including along the Pacific coast.

Senators from both parties, attuned to constituents' ire over high fuel costs, were eager to pass energy legislation before heading home for the summer recess. Eighteen Democrats joined 53 Republicans to support the Senate bill; 24 Democrats, including Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, and one independent were opposed.

The Senate bill would limit new drilling to about 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico - an area believed to contain more than 1.2 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day and about 22 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year.

By contrast, the House bill would lift the nationwide ban on drilling beyond 100 miles of the coast. It would also enable each coastal state to decide whether to permit energy exploration within 100 miles of its shore.

In return for opening their coasts to energy exploration, states would get a share of drilling royalties - a provision that gained the strong backing of Gulf Coast senators of both parties. Even so, a large number of officials from coastal states strongly oppose the House proposal.

The Senate measure is the product of a fragile compromise worked out by the leadership with Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who dropped his opposition to drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico in return for a provision that would prohibit drilling within 125 miles of the Florida Panhandle through 2022.

To win the backing of Gulf Coast lawmakers, the bill would give Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas a bigger slice of the royalties from drilling in the newly opened area.

The Bush administration has expressed support for the Senate bill, calling it important to national security.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, predicted that it would be the first step toward lifting the moratorium on coastal drilling in other parts of the country.

"This is the beginning," said Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico. "The precedent is going to be broken here ... then we can move step by step to other areas of American-owned property off other shores, with no damage, and produce our own natural gas and some of our own crude oil."

Though narrowly focused, the bill drew strong opposition from a number of senators representing coastal states. They expressed fear that it would open the door to Republicans on the conference committee negotiating a more expansive final bill that would relax the nationwide ban on new offshore drilling.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who voted in favor of the bill because of the funds it would provide for Gulf Coast restoration, has vowed to lead a bill-killing filibuster unless the House accepts the narrower Senate measure.

But House leaders weren't ready to accede to any Senate take-it-or-leave it demand.

"House Republicans strongly support our bill because we believe it does a better job of providing relief to working families being hit hard by high gasoline prices," Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader John A. Boehner said in a joint statement after the Senate vote.

Richard Simon and Maura Reynolds write for the Los Angeles Times.

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