Senate committee renews offshore drilling debate

Senate committee renews offshore drilling debate

The new chairman of the Senate energy committee says he has no plans to open more of the nation’s coastline to oil and gas drilling, but others on the committee say they won’t let the matter die.

At a hearing Thursday designed to assess the current state of offshore oil and gas drilling, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he believes there is little political will for opening more U.S. waters to drilling.

Instead, he said, energy companies should focus on waters that already are open to them. The federal government has issued drilling rights for 33-million acres that aren’t producing anything.

But the former chairman, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who requested the hearing, and other members said politicians can’t complain about America’s dependence on foreign oil while barring drilling on 85 percent of the nation’s outer-continental shelf.

“It seems to some of us that we have a huge inventory that we have not touched,” Domenici said. More drilling would move the United States “at least toward using less of someone else’s oil.”

Federal bans protect most of the nation’s coast from drilling, including Florida’s. Last the year, Congress passed a compromise bill opening some 8-million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to drilling. In return, drilling will be prohibited within 150 miles of the Florida Panhandle and 230 miles of Tampa Bay, at least through 2022.

Florida’s senators, Republican Mel Martinez, who serves on the energy committee, and Democrat Bill Nelson, say they expect the Senate’s new Democratic leaders to rebuff attempts to open more water off Florida.

But others made clear Thursday that they plan to nibble at the edges. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she and other advocates will push for a comprehensive inventory of the nation’s offshore reserves, as well as try to let each state decide if it wants to allow drilling. As an incentive, they also want to restructure the payments from federal drilling rights to be more favorable to the states.

Landrieu said she plans to write a letter to the governors of all coastal states that oppose drilling, asking how they intend to contribute to the nation’s power supply. She held up a U.S. map showing the flow of natural gas from Louisiana and its neighbors to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, then drew a sharp arc from Oklahoma to the Florida-Alabama border.

She tapped the line with her pencil. “We’re happy to shut the pipelines down right there.”


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