Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Senate Is Close to Passing Bill for Gulf Drilling

The New York Times
Senate Is Close to Passing Bill for Gulf Drilling

WASHINGTON, July 31 — The Senate moved closer Monday to passing a bill that would open vast new areas of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, voting to cut off debate before a final vote, expected no later than Wednesday.

The vote was 72 to 23, well over the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and a clear sign that the bipartisan bill had enough support to move it into negotiations with the House.

But that may be the only thing that is clear about the measure’s future.

The House has passed a drilling bill that would open the nation’s entire coastline to drilling, a prospect that sponsors of the Senate bill regard as too ambitious.

President Bush has expressed eagerness to sign a new drilling bill into law, and a failure by the House and the Senate to agree on a compromise would probably doom all prospects for major energy legislation this year. Yet for now, the chief sponsors of the bills do not sound as if a compromise is imminent.

Senator Pete V. Domenici, chairman of the energy committee and the Senate bill’s lead sponsor, told reporters before Monday’s vote that he was confident that negotiations would produce a final bill that more closely resembled the Senate’s version than the House’s.

“In due course, we’ll argue for opening up more, then more, then more, then more,” Mr. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, said at a news conference in which he seemed to be directing his remarks more to House negotiators than to reporters.

“This is the first giant step,” he added, a reference to ending federal bans on offshore drilling that have been in effect for 25 years. “We’re breaking precedent, getting it started. We’ll take one big step at a time, and the next step will follow easily if this becomes law. I hope we can convince the House of that.”

But Representative Richard W. Pombo, chairman of the House natural resources committee and chief sponsor of the House drilling bill, said he did not accept Mr. Domenici’s approach to resolving the differences.

“Obviously, I want to get as much as we possibly can in new domestic energy,” Mr. Pombo, Republican of California, said in an interview.

Citing disruptions in oil and gas production caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the ensuing rise in prices, Mr. Pombo said it would be ill advised for the nation to limit new development of resources to the gulf.

“We need to diversify where our domestic energy comes from,” he said. “We can’t continue going back to the gulf with greater dependence as the only source of new energy. Other places, onshore, are in decline. We need to look at other places for our new sources of energy.”

The Senate bill, focusing on an area in the gulf known as Lease Sale 181 and 181 South, is notable for three elements. It would allow the gulf states affected by last summer’s hurricanes — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — to receive a share of the energy production royalties that now go entirely to the federal government. It would provide protections for Florida — the only state to get them — that its senators insisted upon in exchange for support.

And it would open for energy development 8.3 million acres, much more than the 2 million the Bush administration had sought to open for a five-year period, 2007 to 2012, and considerably larger than the 2.9 million acres identified in a bill introduced early this year by Mr. Domenici and Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico and the ranking Democrat on the energy committee.

That bill began to change after Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, and other gulf state senators introduced a measure intended to capture royalties from new drilling. Mr. Domenici and Mr. Bingaman resisted supporting it at first, favoring their more narrowly written measure, which they judged to be the only bill capable of winning more than 60 votes.

But as it became apparent that Ms. Landrieu could make good on a promise to deliver substantial Democratic support for a drilling bill that included a revenue split with the states, Mr. Domenici embraced the change. In the vote to block the filibuster, 20 Democrats voted with 52 Republicans, while 21 Democrats, one independent and one Republican, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, voted against blocking it.

Once the revenue-sharing plan and protections for Florida were written into the bill, Mr. Bingaman withdrew his support and on Monday voted against limiting debate.

The House bill, which was approved closely along partisan lines in June, also includes a revenue-sharing plan and new powers for states to control energy production in their coastal waters. Under current policy, all the waters beyond three miles in most places are under federal control.