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House Republican Sees 'Real Opportunity' to Expand OCS Drilling This Year

With 156 co-sponsors signed on to his legislation, Rep. John Peterson (R-PA) believes "there's a real opportunity" this year for Congress to make headway to expand natural gas drilling on the federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), a spokesman said.

There is broad support in the House for Peterson's bill, HR 4318, which seeks to lift the congressional and presidential bans on natural gas drilling in federal waters, said Peterson spokesman Chris Tucker. "What we're trying to do is right an obvious wrong in government policy," which has put much of the OCS off-limits to gas exploration and production for two decades.

"We're confident that if we're given a markup" in the House Resources Committee and the bill is voted out, that there will be a "real debate at the very least" on the measure on the House floor, Tucker said. "We're inching closer" to obtaining support from 200 House lawmakers. He noted the bill will need the votes of 218 lawmakers to clear the House.

On the Senate side, "we're hearing that the Domenici bill is picking up some steam," Tucker noted. The narrower Senate bill seeks to open up more of the gas-rich area known as Lease Sale 181 in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to drilling. If the Peterson bill clears the House and the Lease 181 measure passes the Senate, Tucker speculated that the two bills could then go to a House-Senate conference.

In addition to HR 4318, which currently is pending before three House subcommittees, Peterson will try again to strike an annual rider from the Interior and Related Agencies' appropriations bill that would enable the congressional ban on offshore drilling to remain in effect for another year. This assumes that the rider, which has been attached to the Interior appropriations bill for the past 20 years, is included in the spending measure this year, Tucker said.

"We have not seen the Interior bill yet," he noted. The House Appropriations Committee has indicated that it wants to take up the Interior spending bill in mid-May, which Tucker said would likely mean that the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee, of which Peterson is a member, would get the measure in early May.

The support for offshore gas drilling on the House interior subcommittee is strong, according to Tucker. "If you look at the roster of people on the subcommittee and you cross-list that with the co-sponsors on our bill, HR 4318, you'll notice a lot of the same names appearing," he said. This "isn't to say that they would support striking that [rider] language, but it is to say that they support the concept of offshore natural gas drilling."

There's a "huge difference" between the two, Tucker said. "By striking the language in the Interior appropriations bill, all that does is lift the congressional moratorium. [But] the presidential one still exists...Our bill would lift both for 20 miles offshore" for gas drilling. There's an "important nuance there," he told NGI.

Still, Tucker believes that action by Congress to end its decades-old offshore drilling ban could force the Bush administration to rethink its moratorium. "If the congressional ban is lifted, the Bush administration would simply have a fig leaf...It wouldn't be able to hide behind this idea that Congress is locking up supply. It would be squarely incumbent upon the president to have to decide" whether to maintain the administration's moratorium.

While Peterson is taking a broader approach to opening the OCS to gas drilling, Tucker said that "we do support" the narrower Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), that attempts to open up more of Lease Sale 181 in the eastern Gulf to drilling. The bill was passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March, and is awaiting action on the Senate floor.

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