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House Approval of 181 Bill Would be 'First Step' in Wider OCS Debate

Key energy-friendly lawmakers are optimistic that the House will pass Tuesday the Senate's more limited offshore drilling bill that would open parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas producers. However, they warned that this would be just a first step, and that efforts already are under way to push for passage of a more expanded Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) drilling bill in the 110th Congress.

"This [Senate] bill is not a silver bullet, but it's a major step" in the right direction," Rep. John Peterson (R-PA), co-author of the more comprehensive House offshore drilling measure, said during a conference call with reporters Monday. He and other offshore drilling proponents, including Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), said Congress would need to take further steps to expand drilling in federal waters in the next Congress.

The Senate offshore bill (S. 3711) will be brought to the House floor under suspension rules, requiring two-thirds of the lawmakers present and voting to approve the bill for passage. If all the House members show up to vote Tuesday, the bill would need the approval of 290 lawmakers. If the bill should fail, House Republican leaders have indicated that they will bring the bill to the floor again under a closed rule later in the week. Under a closed rule, the bill would need a simple majority vote to pass.

The reason for the closed rule is to prevent House lawmakers from offering any amendments to the Senate offshore measure, Peterson said. "If we amend it, and I'd love to amend it, we're not going to get it passed in the Senate," he noted. "We're trying to send them their clean bill back." The Senate approved S. 3711 in August.

Peterson said he believes there will be "very strong support" for S. 3711 in the House Tuesday.

S. 3711 would make 8.3 million acres in the Lease Sale 181 area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in a tract south of Lease Sale 181 available for oil and gas leasing. The mostly Republican-crafted bill also would provide protections (a minimum of a 125-mile, no-drill buffer zone) for Florida and would give four Gulf coastal states a major share (37.5%) of the federal royalties from leasing to be used in restoring their receding coastal areas.

Landrieu disagreed that passage of the Senate's 181 bill would take pressure off a Democratic-led Congress to take action next year on a more expanded OCS measure. "I believe there is a growing [chorus] within the Democratic party that understands that this country needs more oil and gas" development, she said. Landrieu further noted that the Senate offshore bill was not a "bailout" for the energy industry.

Peterson agreed, saying "This is not about the oil companies... I'm not out to help the oil companies. This is about providing energy to the major job creators left in this county."

Peterson made no attempt to hide his preference for the more comprehensive House OCS bill (HR 4711), which would have opened up a greater swath of the OCS to leasing. But "I'm a pragmatist. When you can't score a home run, you take a walk, if you can get it...or you take a hit," he told reporters.

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA), a self-described pro oil and gas legislator, called the Senate offshore bill a "great beginning," although he acknowledged he favored the broader House OCS measure. The Senate bill "won't do everything we need, but it's a beginning." He said he hoped that he and other House lawmakers would have the opportunity in the next Congress to work on expanding OCS access.

"I'd like to make sure that this [Senate bill] is just a first step because we really need to look at other areas" of the OCS for leasing, said Rep. Gene Green (D-TX). He noted he would vote for the Senate measure Tuesday.

Peterson said he already has begun to design a more expanded OCS bill now, to be offered next year, that would challenge the House and Senate leadership and the White House on the issue of energy. "I'm going to be not only a loud voice, I'm going to be a sharp stick" in the next Congress.

Many in the energy industry initially backed the House OCS version, but they have since placed their support behind the Senate offshore measure, realizing that it either was going to be the Senate version or nothing in 2006.

Negotiations to reconcile the vastly different House and Senate OCS drilling bills have been deadlocked for months. Senate leaders wanted the House to accept their narrower OCS bill in place of the more expansive House offshore measure, but House leaders repeatedly resisted the overture. But that was before the November mid-term elections that dramatically changed the political landscape in Washington.

House Republican leaders on Friday abandoned their efforts to merge the two offshore bills and agreed to take the Senate bill to the House floor for a vote this week (see Daily GPI, Dec. 4).

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