Democrats to let longtime ban on offshore drilling expire
Issue's influence will grow in election season
WASHINGTON - A longstanding congressional ban on new offshore oil drilling will expire in seven days, with Democratic leaders conceding yesterday they stand no chance of renewing it this year over President Bush's opposition - and in an election year where gasoline prices have become a hot campaign issue.
By lapsing, the issue will gain greater prominence in the presidential election because it will be up to the next president and Congress to decide whether to renew all or part of the ban, which first was imposed in 1981 to put much of the California coast off-limits to new rigs and expanded to much of the rest of the US coast in 1985.
"This next election will decide what our drilling policy will be," said Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain, like Bush, has urged lifting the ban entirely, while Democratic nominee Barack Obama has said that he would consider limited offshore drilling as part of a broader energy-policy compromise.
"After a long summer of $4 gas, with winter home heating bills on the way, this good news could not have come too soon," said Representative Adam Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Once the ban expires, oil companies could seek federal approval to drill 3 miles offshore or farther. Supporters of the ban hope that before any new drilling can begin, they can renew it, or at least win approval of compromise legislation that would let states decide whether to permit energy exploration 50 miles off their coast.
"I hope that when Congress revisits this issue next year, with a new president, we can negotiate a compromise that respects the need to protect coastal states and puts our country on a path to a clean energy future," said Representative Lois Capps, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, Calif., where a 1969 oil spill devastated the coastline.
The drilling ban had been included annually in spending bills. But the current ban expires Sept. 30, and 155 House Republicans and 49 Senate Republicans vowed to fight any effort to extend it as part of a must-pass bill needed to keep the government funded into next year. That spending bill, which will come before the House and the Senate this week before Congress recesses for the fall campaign, will include $25 billion in loans to help the auto industry build more fuel-efficient cars.
Democratic leaders faced opposition to extending the ban not only from the White House and many Republicans, but also from some politically anxious members of their own caucus who have come under attack for not doing more to increase domestic energy supplies.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said Obey "negotiated the best package he could get with the White House to take a budget standoff off the table" so Congress could address the economic crisis.
Democrats could have tried to include an extension of the drilling ban, or even their compromise drilling proposal, in the must-pass spending bill and dared Bush to veto it. But neither party wanted to risk a government shutdown.