- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

The Senate yesterday voted to open up 8.3 million acres of ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and natural gas exploration, but that sets up a tough negotiation with the House, which wants to expand exploration to an area almost 100 times that size.

With a vote of 71-25, many senators feared a political backlash in the November elections if they blocked a bill that promises to lower gasoline prices.

For the first time, lawmakers from Florida accepted a deal for exploration in the Gulf. The legislation grants the state a 125-square-mile buffer until 2022.

“This bill will have, I think, an almost immediate effect on gas prices, certainly on the futures markets, and I think we will be able to get that oil and gas out of the Gulf of Mexico sooner than most people think and in larger quantities,” said Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican. “I am tired of these political arguments and egos about ‘this bill doesn’t go far enough’ or ‘it goes too far’; this bill is good enough.”

A House version of the bill that passed last month includes the same acreage of Gulf waters, but also opens virtually all of the nation’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts to exploration. It also includes provisions to alter the federal-state split of oil and gas revenues that would net the highest-producing Gulf states — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — as much as $600 billion over the next 15 years.

The Senate legislation was praised as a way to immediately increase domestic oil supplies, lower gas prices and protect national security by reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Democrats, however, complained that the bill did not include incentives for new energy resources, and some Republicans said it wouldn’t open enough of the outer continental shelf to oil and gas exploration.

“We’ve finally decided enough is enough and shown the courage to use our own natural resources, and this is only the beginning, a good start to opening up more,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

He said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada kept Democrats from approving an expansion of the bill to include all coastal waters beyond the shelf.

Mr. Reid said the House bill or any version of it will never pass the Senate.

“Senator Domenici should declare victory and keep quiet,” he said. “The Democratic caucus is very committed that there will be no more offshore drilling; this is it.”

He said the United States “cannot drill its way out” of 60 percent dependence on foreign sources of oil and natural gas, but must look to renewable sources such as wind and solar power, ethanol and hydrogen fuel.

Democratic staffers said they have secured a deal with Senate Republican leaders to ensure that the Senate bill is the only version considered for final passage and that those sentiments have been conveyed to the House, but Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, gave no indication that a deal had been made.

“We haven’t laid down any law or told the House what to do with its bill,” Mr. McConnell said. “We just want to get the best bill we can out of the Senate, and we’ll talk about how to go forward; but that’ll be after the recess.”

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, warned that the House bill “could lead to drilling off of Maine’s shores,” and said oil spills would threaten the state’s fisheries.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said states should be able to decide whether to allow drilling but that the rights of neighboring states must be protected “in the event of an accident that caused some damage to the shorelines.”

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