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House Lawmakers Press to Eliminate Offshore Ban on Gas-Only Drilling

Coming on the heels of House scrapping expanded Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) development as part of the budget reconciliation package, two members of the House Resources Committee introduced stand-alone legislation last Tuesday to eliminate the moratorium with respect to drilling for natural gas on the federal OCS.

Reps. John E. Peterson (R-PA) and Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), who offered the bipartisan measure, are working behind the scenes to win broad support -- from labor, the Black Caucus and other groups -- for their legislation. At a hearing on the bill last Thursday by House Resources' Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, an executive with Osram Sylvania, a major lighting company, said coastal offshore drilling "should be the most important priority in legislation taken up by Congress by the end of 2005."

Unlike with the House budget package, "we expect to get several Democratic votes" for the measure that will focus on offshore gas activity, said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Peterson. Any opposition to the bill would fall mostly along regional lines, rather than party lines, he noted. The Peterson-Abercrombie proposal had been included in a bill approved at the committee level in late September, but it was later struck due to intense opposition from various factions, particularly Florida.

If voted out by the House Resources Committee, Tucker said Peterson and Abercrombie have received assurances from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) that the bill would be considered on the House floor later this winter. The House lawmakers received the assurances in exchange for promising not to try to attach their bill to the budget reconciliation package, which cleared the House on Friday, according to Congressional Quarterly's Green Sheets.

House leaders earlier this month struck from the $50 billion budget bill provisions that were favorable to OCS development and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling (see NGI, Nov. 14). The OCS language, which was negotiated by House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA) and the Florida delegation, would have permitted interested coastal states to engage in oil and gas drilling 125 miles from their shorelines.

"We believe the 125-mile fence was far too generous to Florida," Tucker told NGI. He said the Peterson-Abercrombie bill would establish the boundary for offshore gas drilling at 20 miles and out.

The measure also would require that 40% of the revenues from the offshore gas drilling be turned over to the states, and would allow some of the royalties to be placed into Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program accounts, he said.

In a related development, House Resources' Pombo reportedly hasn't given up on his OCS proposal. He is expected to press for his OCS plan to be included during the House-Senate conference on the budget reconciliation bill, a Capitol Hill aide said. The conference will probably start the week of Dec. 5, when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving break.

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