Citing motorists’ angst about rising gasoline prices, the House of Representatives today advanced two bills that would accelerate offshore oil and gas drilling.
Legislation that would give federal regulators a 60-day deadline to approve or reject specific offshore drilling proposals passed 263-163. A separate bill that would force the government to sell drilling leases in waters off the coast of California and much of the Atlantic Coast is expected to pass Thursday morning.
With strong opposition from the Obama administration and most congressional Democrats, neither measure is expected to advance in the Senate.
But House Republican leaders pushed the legislation as part of an ongoing political fight over who is to blame for high gasoline prices — and what party is doing something to tamp them down.
A similar battle is ongoing in the Senate, where Democrats have proposed legislation to axe $21 billion in tax deductions and credits used by the five biggest oil companies.
Executives from those companies are set to argue for keeping those tax breaks — and defend themselves against accusations they are making outsize profits — during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Thursday.
Backers of the House drilling bills said the legislation would eventually lower oil prices by ensuring more crude is tapped from domestic resources.
“This is a chance for us to speak up and say we are going to develop our natural fuels in this country so we can compete legitimately,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. “You cannot compete by borrowing money to buy foreign oil.”
Opponents said any benefits in increased crude supply could be a decade away, since it could take years for companies to buy new drilling leases, launch exploratory drilling and eventually produce oil from any discoveries.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said the risks were too great and warned that a spill in waters near California could cause “staggering” economic and environmental devastation.
“Drilling for oil and gas along California’s north coast could cause serious harm to the unique and productive ecosystem and the abundant marine life found in this area,” Thompson said.
The bill passed by the House today would give the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement a maximum of 60 days to approve or reject applications for offshore drilling permits. If a decision weren’t made in that timeline, those permits would automatically be deemed approved.
Oil industry leaders and their congressional allies have complained that the ocean energy bureau has moved too slowly in considering specific drilling plans. The agency has permitted 52 new shallow-water wells since imposing new safety mandates last June and it has approved 13 deep-water wells since a moratorium on that exploration was lifted last October.
The second drilling bill debated Wednesday would require the government to plan offshore drilling lease sales in areas where it is believed there are more than 2.5 billion barrels of oil or more than 7.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Although it stopped short of threatening to veto the legislation, the Obama administration said the bill would effectively mandate offshore drilling lease sales “along the entire East Coast, offshore California, and elsewhere, without providing states and local citizens the opportunity to share views about where exploration should happen.”
The ocean energy bureau is developing its plan for lease sales on the outer continental shelf from 2012 through 2017, but the administration has already said that drilling blueprint will not include oil and gas development on the East and West coasts.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., underscored the White House argument that the legislation would force states that oppose offshore drilling to accept it near their coasts. In California, he said, “the only oil the people on those beaches want is suntan oil.”
At times Wednesday, the congressional debate veered into clashes between big oil- and gas-producing states and those that are net consumers.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., angrily accused Florida, New York, Ohio, Michigan and other states of producing very little energy while sucking up oil and gas extracted outside their borders.
“There are a lot of states… that don’t produce, don’t conserve, aren’t efficient and all they want to do is yell about high gas prices,” Landrieu said on the Senate floor. “Why don’t you do something about it?”
Landrieu singled out Florida, a net energy importer that uses natural gas piped in from other states “so they can light up their state.” “They sure fill up a lot of their gas tanks every day,” Landrieu said.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said his state stood ready to provide more energy, in the form of renewable power. But he said Congress is not doing enough to encourage the development of alternative, clean energy technology.
Republicans turned back Democratic amendments that would have:
- mandated the release of executive bonuses paid to executives at companies holding offshore drilling leases.
- barred oil and gas drilling along the northern coast of California.
- blocked companies from obtaining new leases unless they renegotiate any leases they own that waived royalty payments to the federal government.
- forced federal regulators to consult with an independent drilling safety organization as part of their drilling permit reviews.