Oil and Trouble

House Votes to Lift 25-Year Moratorium on Offshore Drilling

by Martha Sadler

For the first time in a quarter century, coastal oil development got a resounding bipartisan go-ahead from Congress. Forty Democratic representatives joined a majority of Republicans to lift the offshore drilling ban that first went into effect in 1981 and has been reaffirmed by Congress each year since. Some Republicans have been trying unsuccessfully for decades to lift the moratorium. Indeed, one such bill was handily defeated in Congress less than two months ago. The difference in the bill that passed Thursday, authored by the head of the House Resources Committee Richard Pombo (R-Tracy, CA), is that it gives states the choice of whether or not to allow drilling. Even more persuasively, it requires the federal government to share as much as 75 percent of lease royalties with states that allow drilling — the closer to shore, the greater the state’s percentage.

The Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act passed 232-187. High gas prices and a sense that the U.S. is just a step away from dependency on foreign oil made the bill popular in the Midwest, while the revenue sharing made it particularly attractive among southern Gulf Coast states, which currently receive just 5 percent of royalties from drilling off their coasts. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 90 percent of the increased revenues would go to the same four states where new drilling is already underway: Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi. In California, the vote split along partisan lines, except for one Democrat — Jim Costa of Fresno — who voted for the bill, and two Republicans — Mary Bono of Palm Springs and John Campbell of Irvine — who opposed lifting the ban.

Supporters of lifting the ban argued that it is an important step toward energy independence, citing the fact that two-thirds of America’s petroleum comes from foreign sources, compared to one-third in the 1970s. Congressman Elton Gallegly (R-Thousand Oaks), a senior member of the Committee on Resources and a supporter of Pombo’s bill, said via a press release that the U.S. is the only nation that restricts access to its offshore energy resources, putting it at a strategic disadvantage to China and India.

Opponents stressed that continued oil mining is not the solution to the nation’s energy woes. Because oil and gas dependency contributes to global warming, as well as war, they argued that the nation would be better served by developing sustainable energy sources. On the same Thursday that Pombo’s bill passed, a bill calling for improved fuel efficiency was rejected. Santa Barbara Congresswoman Lois Capps derided the Committee on Resources’ “drill only” approach in a floor speech to Congress. She spoke of the hurdles states like California would have to clear in order to continue the moratorium, noting that not only would the legislature and governor have to petition the federal government every five years, but the “feds can simply ignore a state’s request for continuing the ban anyway. That’s hardly giving a state control over its coastal protection.” She also lamented the cost to federal coffers: “For my fiscally conservative friends who have spent hours trying to strike $100,000 earmarks from appropriations bills, let me repeat that: The bill will add $74 billion to the deficit over the next 15 years, and $600 billion over the next 60 years [according to the Office of Management and Budget].” Meanwhile, Linda Krop, lead attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, which has been battling oil company lawyers for years to halt the industrialization of the California coast, called the bill “nothing short of a bribe.” Any increase in offshore oil development pollutes air and water, she said, and harms marine wildlife. “If we only increase fuel efficiency a couple miles per gallon we can save our nation, including the Arctic National Wilderness Reserve, and for a few more miles per gallon, stop importing oil from overseas.”

Although the bill passed Congress with a mere two hours of debate, it is expected to have a much harder time of it in the Senate, which is facing a filibuster from Florida’s senators regarding the potential fouling of Florida’s famous beaches due to drilling from oil-rich fields in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 100 miles from Florida’s shore.

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