Friday, May 19, 2006

House votes to keep offshore drilling ban

House votes to keep offshore drilling ban
By Tom Doggett

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a big win for environmentalists, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to keep the congressional ban on natural gas drilling in most federal offshore waters that start just a few miles from state coastlines.

Energy companies have complained for years they need access to the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in federal waters where drilling is banned to help meet growing gas demand that has lifted natural gas prices amid tighter supplies.

High gas costs have forced many energy-intensive industries to scale back or move their operations to other countries where energy is cheaper. Higher natural gas utility bills have also pinched consumers.

The full House voted 217-203 to reverse last week's move by the House Appropriations Committee to include language in the $26 billion interior and environment spending bill that would have ended the congressional ban on gas drilling in federal waters.

The committee did not change the congressional ban on oil drilling, nor did it address a separate presidential ban in place until 2012 on oil and gas production in most federal offshore waters.

House lawmakers earlier rejected by 279-141 an amendment to the spending measure that would have also ended the drilling ban on oil.

Currently, only the central and western Gulf of Mexico and limited areas off Alaska are open to drilling. The committee's action would allow companies to search for gas in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast.

Supporters and opponents of the gas drilling ban predicted the House vote would be close. With midterm congressional elections months away, voters are angry about high energy prices.

Florida lawmakers were the most outspoken critics of expanding gas drilling in federal waters, arguing that rigs within view of their coastline or a drilling accident would harm the state's valuable tourism industry.

Environmental groups said the ban should stay because it would take about seven years for natural gas to begin flowing from any new leases, which would not affect current prices.

"In the midst of planning summer trips to the beach, Americans deserve energy policies that save families money and protect their favorite vacation spots. Drilling off our coasts won't do either," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director.

The American Gas Association said the House vote "signals growing support for re-examination" of offshore drilling restrictions and it "will add tremendous momentum" to other bills moving through the Congress in the coming months to open more federal waters to energy exploration.

Separately, the House removed from the spending bill language that supports, but does not require, mandatory limits on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warning that could be spewed by U.S. power plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities.

The nonbinding global warming provision was similar to language adopted last year by the Senate, but it was dropped from the House bill because it violated House rules that prevent legislating policy on spending measures.

The House also struck language directing the Interior Department to renegotiate drilling contracts the government signed in the 1990s with energy companies that will allow them to avoid paying billions of dollars in federal royalties on their oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.

Opponents to the drilling contract provision argued it also violated House rules against using spending bills to legislate.

The House also adopted on a 237-181 vote an amendment that would eliminate logging subsidies in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

It also moved on a 222-198 vote to block the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing water rules that environmentalists say would damage streams and wetlands.

The House approved the underlying spending bill 293-128. The Senate now takes up the legislation.