A top House Democrat on Tuesday said his party will not push to reinstate a ban on offshore oil and natural-gas drilling next year.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said there will be serious discussion as to the "parameters" to which offshore drilling will be pursued, but Democrats will not try to backtrack after grudgingly giving in to Republican demands to allow the 26-year ban to expire this fall.
"I don't think there is any intent at this point in time ... to return to the same position we were in" before the ban was lifted, Mr. Hoyer told a gathering of reporters Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington.
The congressional drilling moratorium was first enacted in 1982 and had been renewed annually until Democrats decided in late September not to seek another extension. At the time, they said they would work with the new White House administration to reinstate the ban soon after the new Congress convenes in January.
Republicans had pushed for the ban to be lifted, saying it was needed to help wean the country off its dependency on foreign oil. Democrats long had opposed the idea, saying oil companies already have millions of drilling acres on land they're not using.
But when gasoline prices skyrocketed to more than $4 a gallon this summer and public opinion favored increased domestic drilling, Democrats had little political stomach to extend the ban another year.
A top Republican aide said Mr. Hoyer's comments were good news, but that ending the moratorium was "only the beginning, not the end, of our efforts to enact an 'all of the above' energy strategy." Nuclear power, "clean coal" and alternative fuel sources such as biofuels and wind and solar power must be developed in concert with increased drilling, said Michael Steel, a spokesman with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
"The fact remains that we are transferring $700 billion from America to countries overseas and companies overseas every year, and that's not a good idea from a national security standpoint or an economic standpoint, and that hasn't changed," Mr. Steel said.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), the main U.S. trade association for the oil and natural-gas industry, said it was encouraged by Mr. Hoyer's words, but also cautioned Democrats against tweaking the rules governing offshore drilling.
"When they're talking about 'parameters,' we should point out that putting arbitrary limits on development, whether that's [prohibiting drilling within] 100 miles from shore, or whatever they're thinking, could take some of the most promising domestic resources off the table," said API spokeswoman spokesman Cathy Landry.
"So we would caution them to really look at what they're doing and learn about what's out there before they take action. It could potentially keep some of our nation's best prospects from being developed."
The lifting of the ban allows oil and gas leasing on most of the outer continental shelf - three miles to 200 miles offshore - and expanded oil-shale development in the West - areas that had been off limits.
Gasoline prices have dropped nearly in half since the ban was lifted.
Mr. Hoyer also said he wouldn't recommend that President-elect Barack Obama give a "Kennedyesque" declaration for the U.S. to stop importing foreign oil in 10 or 15 years.
"I don't think he ought to make that definitive statement because I'm not sure if that's possible," Mr. Hoyer said. "What is possible, however, is to very substantially reduce our reliance on petroleum products."