Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, considers legislation opening new areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to oil and natural gas leasing to be a “top priority,” and he “got off the ground running by reaching out to the House” Tuesday as lawmakers returned from their month-long recess, a spokeswoman for Domenici said.

Domenici “was further energized” by Chevron Corp.’s announcement Tuesday of a new oil and gas discovery in the Gulf of Mexico, a discovery that, along with others, could boost domestic supplies by 50%, said spokeswoman Marnie Funk. “Imagine what other resources we have in this region,” Domenici noted.

“I urge the House to join us in opening Lease Sale 181 [in the eastern Gulf] and Lease Sale 181 South for environmentally responsible oil and gas development. It’s not enough to punt 181 to the Minerals Management Service. MMS first proposed opening Lease Sale 181 in 1997 and the country is still waiting,” the chairman said.

But House leaders don’t particularly favor the narrower Senate OCS bill (S. 3711), which is limited strictly to the eastern Gulf. It would make 8.3 million acres in the Lease 181 area and in a tract south of Lease 181 available for oil and gas leasing, would provide protections (a minimum of a 125-mile, no-drill buffer zone) for Florida and would give four Gulf coastal states a major share (37.5%) of the federal royalties from leasing in the areas opened by the bill to be used in restoring their receding coastal areas.

The House OCS measure (HR 4761), which is far more broad, would give all coastal states, including the Pacific and East Coast states, the option to allow drilling within 100 miles of their shorelines and would remove the moratorium on drilling beyond the 100-mile mark. It also would offer coastal states a greater share of the federal royalties than that proposed in S. 3711.

The problem now facing Capitol Hill negotiators is reconciling these vastly different bills, hopefully before Congress leaves in either late September or early October to campaign for the mid-term elections. House leaders would prefer that a conference committee be set up to work out the differences in the bills, said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Rep. John Peterson (R-PA), one of the sponsors of the House OCS legislation.

“The House leadership has made it clear that they want to reconcile the differences in conference,” he noted. However, this poses a major problem for the Senate, which doesn’t want any changes to its Lease 181 bill. Alterations to the Senate measure would cause the fragile support for the bill to collapse in the upper chamber.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, as well as the Florida senators, have vowed to filibuster the bill if it’s radically changed by House lawmakers.

House and Senate energy staffers were in meetings Tuesday to determine the best strategy for moving forward on the OCS bills. But it could not be learned whether any progress has been made.

Tucker believes the upcoming elections may give lawmakers the impetus to get something done on OCS. “The election is a helpful thing, not a hurtful thing” because lawmakers will want to be able to show their electorate that they did something to ease energy prices when they return home to campaign for the November elections, he said.

He also believes Congress can act on OCS in the few remaining legislative days left before elections. “Time is short, but it’s not as short as some would suggest.”

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