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New Jersey Democrats Seek to Permanently Ban Drilling Off Much of East Coast

Three New Jersey Democratic lawmakers have reintroduced legislation that would place a permanent ban on drilling off the Jersey Shore and all of the North and Mid-Atlantic states from Maine to Virginia.

The action by Sens. Jon S. Corzine and Frank R. Lautenberg and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. came just days after the head of Minerals Management Service, Rejane "Johnnie" Burton, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the Bush administration would consider removing the federal ban on new offshore oil and natural gas drilling if Congress would also back it (see NGI, April 25).

The legislation, the "COAST (Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism) Anti-Drilling Act," would permanently extend an existing moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the Jersey Shore. The moratorium has been in effect since 1982, but is scheduled to expire in 2012, according to Corzine's office.

The measure also came on the heels of House passage of a Republican energy bill that includes a provision giving states a financial incentive to undo the federal moratorium for their individual state, the New Jersey Democrats said (see NGI, April 25). Under current law, the federal government receives all the financial royalties from the offshore drilling that takes place in federal waters. But as an incentive to non drilling states, the omnibus energy bill would allow states to share a certain percentage of the royalties, the lawmakers noted.

Corzine and Pallone originally introduced the COAST Anti-Drilling Act in the summer of 2001 when the Bush administration released a proposal to study the impact of drilling off the coast of New Jersey. The administration quickly withdrew its proposal at the time, but Interior Department officials are once again considering removal of the federal ban on new offshore drilling, they said.

The bill would end the periodic threats of inventorying parts of the Outer Continental Shelf as a first step towards offshore oil and natural gas drilling. It would prohibit the Interior Department from issuing leases for exploration, development or production of oil, gas or any other minerals in the North and Mid-Atlantic region.

While some states, such as New Jersey, Florida and California, are firmly opposed to lifting the drilling moratorium, other states, such as Virginia, are indicative of the coastal states that are beginning to consider opening their waters to oil and natural gas activity.

"The [Virginia] General Assembly has spoken. We want to develop our offshore resources," state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia, said during the same hearing in which MMS' Burton appeared last week. Wagner sponsored a bill in the last session to open up the gas-rich areas of the state's offshore region to producers. The measure passed the General Assembly handily in February, but was later vetoed by Gov. Mark Warner. The state Senate failed to override the veto earlier this month (see NGI, April 11). Wagner has indicated he may reintroduce the measure in the next session if Congress fails to act at the federal level to give states the opportunity to opt out of the moratorium.

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