- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Before the 109th Congress adjourns for good, the House ought to do one good deed on the energy front: Pass Senate-approved legislation that expands offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The measure moves the nation in the right direction, even if it is not as far as many representatives want to go.

The operative phrase is “good deed.” Our preference would be for a relatively “great deed,” which could be achieved by significantly increasing the opportunity for offshore oil and gas drilling around the nation’s periphery. But that is not in the cards.

Indeed, in June the House actually passed much-preferred legislation, which would have effectively replaced the longtime ban on most offshore energy drilling by giving states the authority to decide how much oil and gas exploration they would permit within 100 miles of their coasts. The House bill would permit drilling beyond 100 miles. To appease Florida, the House bill did ban drilling within 100 miles of the state’s west coast. Unfortunately, the House’s “great deed” had zero chance of getting the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a certain filibuster.

In August, the Senate overwhelmingly approved (71-25) a scaled-down version of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. In the eastern Gulf, the Senate version would open up 8.3 million acres to oil and gas exploration, including Lease Area 181, whose promising reserves and nearness to existing infrastructure make it a valuable energy opportunity not only for the oil and gas industry but also for its customers. In the current political climate, as the incoming Democratic-led 110th Congress prepares to target Big Oil, it’s worth emphasizing that Big Oil’s customers include households that heat their homes with natural gas, the chemical and agricultural industries, which depend upon natural gas as an indispensable feedstock, and, of course, anybody who drives a motor vehicle or purchases products delivered by trucks. Everybody is aware of the soaring price of oil and gasoline. That development has affected consumers and businesses around the world because the market-clearing price for oil applies worldwide. The price for natural gas, however, is largely determined locally. And American industries and consumers dependent upon natural gas have been paying a much higher price than natural-gas consumers in other parts of the world because of U.S.-imposed supply constraints, which the Senate bill would help to alleviate.

While maintaining a drilling ban off Florida’s coast, the Senate bill would also grant four coastal states (mostly Louisiana, but also Mississippi, Alabama and Texas) a 37.5 percent share of offshore-drilling royalties from new production in order to finance wetland restoration and infrastructure improvements for flood control.

Although the Senate offshore bill is inferior to the House bill, it happens to be the only game in town today. And it is far better than nothing. Passing it before Congress adjourns would be a good start in the right direction.

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