The Democrat-led House, facing voter outrage over high gas prices, late Tuesday approved a bill allowing some new offshore oil drilling, though critics say the plan would still leave most known underwater oil fields off-limits.
The bill, which would include $18 billion in tax incentives over 10 years for alternative energy and energy- efficiency improvements, passed by a vote of 236-189. But the vote fell significantly short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a threatened White House veto. And it's uncertain whether and when the Senate will take up the bill.
Still, with the November elections looming, Democrats are hoping to use the vote as proof they are serious about increasing the nation's domestic oil supply.
"Nothing is more fundamental to our economy than energy," said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat. "This is the energy policy Americans have been waiting for, for it lays out a smorgasbord of resources to address our future [energy] challenges."
The proposal would expand oil and natural-gas drilling as close as 50 miles offshore, if states agree. An exception would be Florida's Gulf Coast, where current drilling bans would remain intact.
The remaining outer continental shelf from 100 miles out also would be open to oil and gas leasing without state approval.
House Republicans said the bill is nothing more than a charade because it would keep off-limits nearly 90 percent of offshore oil because it lies within 50 miles of land.
The bill "won't do a ... thing about American energy," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "The bill that's coming to the floor is nothing more than a hoax on the American people, and they will not buy it."
Republicans added that the measure, if it became law, would do little to produce new domestic energy sources and nothing to lower the price of gasoline at the pump.
"But that doesn't matter because nobody expects this bill to become law," said Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, on the House floor Tuesday. "Members of the House are offended - and we should be - by this process."
Drilling currently is allowed in federal and state waters off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Alaska, while some drilling also is allowed off the Southern California coast.
A small portion of the Gulf of Mexico about 125 miles from Florida has been approved for oil exploration, although no drilling there has been approved.
Democrats said offshore -drilling provisions would open up 85 percent of the total oil available on the outer continental shelf for leasing, and would expand oil available by at least 2 billion barrels.
They add it also would make enough natural gas available to heat 6 million homes for more than 42 years.
The measure wouldn't give states a share of the royalties for offshore drilling, which Republicans argue will leave states little incentive to agree to oil exploration off their coasts.
Democrats, however, say drilling would create jobs and strengthen local economies.
The bill also mandates that utility companies obtain 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
On land, the bill would increase domestic oil production in Alaska by mandating annual lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, which has an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil. Drilling in the adjacent Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would remain off-limits.
The proposal also would extend tax credits for wind and solar industries that are scheduled to expire this year.
To pay for the new tax incentives, the bill rolls back $18 million in tax breaks for the five largest oil companies. It also requires energy companies to pay billions of dollars in additional royalties from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1990s.
— This article is based in part on wire service reports.