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House Panel Vote on Lifting OCS Leasing Ban in Limbo

A vote on whether to remove the congressional ban on oil and natural gas leasing on most of the federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) was placed in limbo last Thursday after the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee abruptly adjourned a markup when Republicans tried to force the panel to bring up the Interior Department spending bill that addresses the offshore ban, CQ Today reported.

Prior to the markup, a committee spokeswoman told NGI Thursday that a vote on an Interior spending bill amendment to remove the drilling moratorium, sponsored by Rep. John Peterson (R-PA), had been tentatively rescheduled for July 9, when Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess. However, when asked during a markup last Thursday to give his assurance that he would bring the Interior spending measure up for a vote after recess, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) declined, according to CQ Today.

Obey quickly adjourned the markup of the fiscal year (FY) 2009 Labor-HHS-Education and Agriculture spending bills when Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the appropriations panel, tried to bring up the Interior spending bill and force a vote on removing the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling.

Because of the Republicans' action, an infuriated Obey last week indicated that he may not hold any further markups on appropriations bills this year, which could put an end to any efforts to open up the OCS this year.

Calls for Congress to expand drilling in the federal OCS have come from President Bush; Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican candidate for president; and other prominent Republicans in recent weeks (see NGI, June 23).

The committee vote on the Interior appropriations bill initially was scheduled for June 18, but it was canceled so the House could take up emergency supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the committee.

The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this month rejected (9-6) Peterson's amendment to the Interior and related agencies' spending bill for FY 2009 (see NGI, June 16). The vote broke down along party lines, with every Democrat on the subcommittee opposing the amendment. The measure sought to remove the congressional moratorium on oil and natural gas preleasing, leasing and associated activities in areas 50-200 miles from the East and West Coasts, as well as in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Peterson, an avowed proponent of opening federally protected waters to expanded drilling, said he planned to offer the amendment again when and if the full Appropriations Committee marks up the Interior spending bill. The House lawmaker has tried repeatedly to remove the congressional ban on offshore leasing, which is routinely renewed each year as part of the Interior appropriations bill.

In related action last week, before the stand-off in the House appropriations committee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin urged Congress to open a small part of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling, as well as lift the moratorium on exploration and development in much of the federal OCS.

"What will it take for Congress to enact comprehensive energy policy that includes increased domestic production of oil and gas, renewable and alternative energy, and conservation? It seems to us outside of the Capital Beltway that virtually every effort to accomplish this is met with criticism and failure. In my opinion, the debate about energy policy is no longer theoretical and abstract," she wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

"In the last few days, proposals have been tabled to permit oil exploration and development in the 80% of the federal Outer Continental Shelf, which is off-limits to such activity. I strongly support OCS development in Alaska and elsewhere as a necessary component of a sound energy strategy," Palin said "However, it makes no sense to consider the OCS and to ignore the possibility of exploration and development in the highly [prospective] upland areas, including the coastal plain of ANWR -- the most promising unexplored petroleum province in North America,"

She warned that "if we don't move now to enact an energy policy that includes more oil and gas production from domestic sources, including ANWR and the federal OCS, we may look back someday and realize that we failed to perceive a critical crossroad in the history of this nation. I don't think it's overly dramatic to say that this nation's future and the quality of life for every American are dependent on the decisions you make or don't make in the next few months."

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