Republicans refuse to give up on drilling

Republicans refuse to give up on drilling

House Republicans dumped a plan Tuesday to vote on a Senate proposal to open up more of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration.

But drilling supporters vowed to raise the issue again today, hoping to pass a bill before the 109th Congress comes to a close and Democrats take control of Capitol Hill.

“I will be stunned and grossly disappointed if we do not pass this bill,” said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa.

Daunted by the prospect of prodding two-thirds of House members to suspend House rules Tuesday and agree to open 8.3 million acres of the federal Outer Continental Shelf west of Florida to drilling, GOP leaders pulled the bill and went shopping for another vehicle.

Drilling supporters now plan to try to attach the offshore language to a bill designed to extend some popular tax breaks, including one that would allow Texans to continue to write their sales taxes off their federal income taxes.

The House is slated to vote on that bill ”” which would require a simple majority vote ”” today, with the Senate likely following Thursday.

Whether this lame-duck Congress can pass the drilling language in the waning hours of its session remained highly uncertain Tuesday.

“It’s now or never,” said Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, one of a number of Democrats pushing for a drilling bill.

But drilling opponents Tuesday were already strategizing how to try to thwart this latest parliamentary maneuver.

“We are ready to move, depending on what their course of action is,” said Israel Klein, a spokesman for Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

The drilling proposal would open up a portion of the eastern Gulf believed to hold upwards of 1.26 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The bill also would try to help compensate Texas and other Gulf producing states, which bear the brunt of the nation’s offshore oil and gas activity, by giving them 37.5 percent of all revenue generated by production in the new areas.

Proponents are trying to provide funds for coastal restoration, which Jackson Lee sees as crucial to helping Houston avoid its perennial flooding problems.

The current offshore proposal sailed through the Senate earlier this year by a 3-1 margin. The bill’s failure to attract the necessary support in the House cheered drilling opponents Tuesday.

Markey said the decision to pull the bill “only further underscores how little support there remains for the Republican Party’s bankrupt energy policy.”

“In November, Americans voted for a new direction on energy policy, not the same tired Republican policies of drill, drill, drill,” Markey said.

Drilling opponents could try to alter the bill by adding language aimed at helping recover billions of dollars in royalty payments lost because of faulty contracts the Interior Department signed with offshore operators in 1998 and 1999.

Such a proposal would target companies that refuse to pay back royalties by barring them from any new leases that would be made available because of this new offshore legislation.

The House overwhelmingly approved similar language earlier this year, and many lawmakers may be loath to vote against the same provision now.

But the bill’s supporters over in the Senate warned against tinkering with the offshore language: “There will be no opportunity to pass an amended bill in the Senate,” Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said.

Earlier this year, the House passed a far more ambitious plan to open up federal waters up and down the nation’s coastlines to oil and gas drilling, a measure strongly supported by the oil industry.

But as the legislation languished and hope for the House version evaporated, industry leaders began calling on lawmakers to accept the more modest Senate version.

“We urge members of the House to come together and act in the best interest of American consumers, American industries and America’s energy future,” said Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Notably absent from the crowd calling for passage of the offshore bill Tuesday was one of the staunchest supporters of expanded drilling in the House ”” Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

Pombo has complained the legislation gave the Bush administration little more authority to expand drilling, while adding new restrictions.

Environmental groups were hoping the decision to pull the bill from the floor Tuesday was what Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club called “the end of Congress’ fling with Big Oil.”

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