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House Dems Play Politics With Offshore Drilling

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/pelosi.jpgNancy Pelosi, in a reversal, threw her support behind a bill to allow expanded offshore drilling. (Flickr: Orin)

In a move calculated to ease voters’ concerns over high fuel prices — and help their party in November — House Democrats easily passed a bill Tuesday night expanding offshore oil exploration.

The legislation, which partly eliminates a decades-old moratorium on new drilling, marks a sharp departure from earlier Democratic vows to keep the ban in place. The reversal was a political one: Public opinion polls show that voters increasingly support new oil exploration, despite evidence that the change would have little effect on fuel prices for more than two decades. Fearing political fallout in November’s elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a long-time critic of new drilling, included provisions to expand the practice.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But Republicans — who have made new domestic exploration the top issue this election season — overwhelmingly opposed the bill, labeling it a hoax designed solely to provide Democrats with political cover during the campaign season.

Young isn’t wrong. The Senate is expected to scale back the drilling expansion, and the Bush administration has already issued a veto threat. More to the point, however, the House vote was 236 to 189, largely along party lines. The partisan division allows Democrats to navigate the election season claiming to have heeded voters’ concerns by approving a drilling expansion, while chastising Republicans for opposing the same issue they’ve so adamantly claimed to support.

How this game plays out on the campaign trail is anyone’s guess. The bill would allow states along both the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards to approve new drilling between 50 and 100 miles off their coasts. The Interior Dept., however, has determined that most known reserves rest much closer to shore.

Furthermore, the bill offers no royalties to states that agree to new drilling — providing little incentive for them to do so. Republicans will try to sell those messages on the campaign trail, but they’ll be relying on the understanding of the same American public that mistakenly believes increased drilling will offer immediate relief at the pump.

In addition, gas prices have plummeted in recent weeks as a result of decreased demand and, more recently, the chaos on Wall Street. The financial turmoil has pushed the issue of fuel costs from the headlines, and could continue to do so right through the election.

There are other reasons the bill stirred such partisan division. It includes, for example, the elimination of roughly $18 billion in tax breaks to major oil companies — a provision favored by a majority of Democrats but opposed by most Republicans.

The bill would also force the release of 70 million barrels of oil from the nation’s emergency reserves; provide tax breaks for efficient building construction and companies that promote bicycle commutes; allow oil shale development in some Western states, and require all utility companies to generate at least 15 percent of their power by alternative fuels by 2020.

But the drilling issue remains the most contentious. For that reason, some major environmental groups have been quick to denounce the House legislation. The National Audubon Society, for example, contends that the vastly expanded drilling would threaten wide expanses of the nation’s beaches and coastlines. The renewable energy provisions, Audubon maintains, don’t compensate for that new risk. “This bill does too little to bring about America’s clean energy future,” Betsy Loyless, Audubon’s senior vice president, said in a statement.

Brent Blackwelder, the president of Friends of the Earth Action, echoed that concern, saying the Democratic proposal “falls far short of what this country needs, and its inclusion of offshore drilling actually moves us in the wrong direction.

“Debate on this bill has been a waste of energy and a waste of time,” Blackwelder said.

The environmentalists probably need not worry. There’s no indication that the Senate, due to take up energy legislation next week, has the appetite for the same broad expansion of drilling passed by the House. One upper chamber proposal gaining traction, for example, would limit state-approved drilling to Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, while retaining the 50-mile buffer zone.

In addition, the White House issued a statement yesterday threatening to veto the bill if it reaches the president’s desk. The administration says that, taken as a whole, the bill would hinder oil and gas development rather than promote it.

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