House calls on Obama to issue drilling permits

Bill expedites offshore leases

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With gas prices topping $4 a gallon, the House passed a bill Thursday that would order the Obama administration to issue offshore-drilling permits for leases it delayed or canceled in the wake of last year’s Deep Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

The measure, the first in what Republicans say will be a series of pro-U.S. energy bills they will push through the House, passed 266-149 with 33 Democrats joining all but two Republicans in backing the new drilling orders.

In part because of lower demand, the price of oil dropped by almost $10, or nearly 10 percent, on Thursday, though it’s not yet clear how much effect that will have on the price at the pump, which averaged just a penny or two shy of $4 this week.

Still, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledged there is little they can do in Congress to affect prices in the short term, so instead they sparred over symbolic steps they each said would show the markets they are serious about bringing more resources online.

“The sooner we begin to create more American energy, the sooner we’ll be able to lower the prices, and become less dependent on foreign sources and create more American jobs,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters.

For the GOP, the solution involves pushing to lease more U.S. territory offshore. Thursday’s bill would direct the Interior Department to conduct sales of three lease areas in the Gulf of Mexico and one off the shores of Virginia.

The administration released a statement opposing the bill, but notably did not include a veto threat.

In the statement, the administration said it would prefer doing new environmental studies that take into account the Deepwater Horizon spill, and said the Interior Department had already planned on granting the three Gulf of Mexico leases next year, or one year behind schedule.

Last year’s oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and dumped an estimated nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf before it was finally plugged last summer. President Obama first imposed a drilling moratorium then, after it was lifted, Republicans accused him of still going too slowly in issuing permits.

Democratic leaders, though, said drilling safety - both for the environment and for workers - must be given more attention.

They tried to force votes Thursday to withdraw federal subsidies from oil companies and to make companies sell U.S.-produced oil in the U.S., rather than putting it up for sale on the world market. But those efforts were blocked on parliamentary votes.

Democrats also said they want Congress or the president to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which they said would scare speculators out of the market and could help lower prices in the short term. They introduced their own legislation that they said would strengthen the ability to crack down on oil speculation.

“That is what keeps speculators awake at night worried about, that the United States is going to use this weapon in order to tell them that we are going to wring out all of the profits from your speculation in this marketplace,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat.

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