House Votes to Lift 25-Year Moratorium on Offshore

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

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

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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