Offshore drilling proponents launch new push on Capitol Hill

The oil and gas industry and their allies in Congress are renewing a campaign to expand drilling along the U.S. coastline.

“There is broad support from both policymakers and the public” for “tapping into oil and natural gas resources off our coasts,” said Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream director, during a conference call with reporters. “We need to begin taking the steps to ensure the nation’s long-term energy security.”

In the House, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is advancing legislation that would force the Obama administration to sell oil and gas leases off the coast of Virginia, South Carolina and California. The measure is set to get a hearing in a House Natural Resources subcommittee on Thursday.

Hastings, who heads the full panel, calls his legislation a “pro-energy, pro-jobs plan that will strengthen our economy and increase our energy security by responsibly and safely harnessing our vast offshore energy resources.”

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A similar measure passed the House of Representatives during the last Congress but did not advance further in the Senate. Congressional Democrats have decried the bill as a measure designed more for political messaging than substantive change.

Hastings’ bill also would codify a reorganization of the federal agencies that oversee offshore drilling, which was done administratively after the 2010 Gulf oil spill, though the measure would make some tweaks.

The legislation also would create a high-level position at the Interior Department: a new under secretary of energy, land and minerals, who would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Hastings has said the move would ensure American energy production becomes a top priority within the Interior Department.

Like a Senate bill sponsored by Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., Hastings’ measure would expand the amount of revenue coastal states collect for energy development close to their shores, giving them up to 37.5 of the royalties collected by the federal government.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee could hold a hearing on the Murkowski-Landrieu revenue-sharing bill in July, and chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has signaled his support, despite concerns from some coastal Democrats in the Senate.

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Some oil industry lobbyists suspect lawmakers may eventually have to find a way to replace the lost federal revenue from the royalty sharing bill’s plan to divert more of those dollars to states, providing an opening for proposals to sell more offshore drilling leases that could bring in more cash. The most likely scenario — and even this could be a stretch –could be adding a plan to sell leases off the coast of Virginia after new seismic research is conducted in the region.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is on track to unveil a final environmental study of a potential seismic research program from Delaware to Florida later this year, after releasing a draft of that analysis in 2012. The bureau is moving on a slower timetable since receiving tens of thousands of public comments on the draft environmental impact study last year.