Concerned by a growing interest to open banned waters to drilling activity, more than 100 House lawmakers have called on Appropriations Committee members to keep intact the long-standing prohibition against oil and natural gas exploration and production in much of the federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

“With a renewed interest in developing natural gas and oil on the OCS, we believe it is again imperative for Congress to reaffirm its authority on this issue,” said the lawmakers in an April 29 letter to Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC), chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s interior and environment subcommittee, and to Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.

The House legislators urged Taylor and Dicks to include OCS moratorium language in the fiscal 2006 Interior and Environmental Appropriations bill, barring oil and gas activities in the Georges Bank-North Atlantic planning area, Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic planning area, eastern Gulf of Mexico planning area, the northern, southern and central California planning areas, and the Washington and Oregon planning area.

The congressional moratorium prohibits the use of federal funds for offshore leasing, pre-leasing and other oil and gas drilling-related activities in moratoria areas, the lawmakers said. The legislative moratorium, which has been in use since 1982, is reviewed annually.

Signing the letter to the House appropriators were key lawmakers from states that have long been opposed to drilling off their coasts, such as California, Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Other coastal states, such as Virginia, are leaning towards making their coastlines accessible to producers. “We want to develop our offshore resources,” state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month. He sponsored a bill in the last session of the Virginia General Assembly 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 in early April (see Daily GPI, April 8).

Wagner has hinted that he may reintroduce his bill in the next session if Congress fails to do something at the federal level to give coastal states the opportunity to opt out of the moratorium.

Testifying at the same Senate energy panel hearing, Rejane “Johnnie” Burton, director of the Minerals Management Service, indicated that the Bush administration might be flexible on the offshore drilling moratorium if individual states seek authorization to opt out to begin exploration and production activities off their coastlines.

The American Public Gas Association (APGA), which represents municipal gas distributors, last week called on President Bush to include all offshore areas currently under moratoria or “administrative discretionary withdrawal” in the upcoming five-year OCS oil and gas leasing program for 2007-2012 (see Daily GPI, April 28).

“I understand that the Department of Interior may be directed to exclude a significant portion of the eastern Gulf of Mexico from inclusion” in the new five-year OCS program, the APGA wrote in a letter to the president. “The supply challenges that our nation faces requires that we keep all options open, including production from areas currently off-limits…APGA firmly believes that we can produce natural gas in those areas in an environmentally safe and sound manner.”

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