- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Senate cleared a legislative hurdle yesterday to begin consideration and debate of a measure that would open the Gulf Coast to oil and natural-gas exploration.

Drilling off the coast — and leaving in place protections for Florida’s coastline — has wide support in the Senate. The measure becoming law is more of a long shot because of the House’s position on the matter.

Senators voted 86-12 to move forward on the bill, which would open 8 million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico in an area known as Lease Sale 181. The bill also would allow Gulf states to share in the revenue created from capturing new oil and natural gas. Supporters say it could yield more than 1 billion barrels of oil and immediately lower the price of natural gas.

Several steps will follow, including a maneuver to limit amendments and at least one day of debate. Senators said they expect a final vote early next week.

Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, who helped craft the bill, called it a “very fragile compromise.”

He supports the measure only because it protects from drilling 125 miles of the Florida coast through 2022 and deals with a “very specific surgical strip.” He said no other position would be acceptable in the full Senate.

“It would be hard for Florida to get this good a deal down the road,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen this way, then, no, it’s not going to be open for bidding.”

But the House last month voted 232-187 for a bill allowing drilling within 50 miles of the shore.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the measure will decrease American dependence on foreign sources of oil.

The bill would open up “America’s property,” Mr. Domenici said.

He also alluded to the concerns of many legislators from both coasts who worry that opening the Gulf region could lead to oil rigs in all coastal waters.

“We ought to get on with changing 25 years of what started in California of a fear that was irrational and get on with reasonable, rational, safe deep-water drilling,” Mr. Domenici said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada scolded Republicans for not adopting Democratic energy proposals this year.

“This bill will do little or nothing to fix America’s energy crisis or the failed Bush-Cheney energy policies,” Mr. Reid said. “This country needs a crash course to develop alternative and renewable energy.”

When asked whether the Senate bill would clear the House untouched, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said, “I think we would prefer our version of the bill … our members feel pretty strongly about the House bill.”

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, said Tuesday that he saw no way that the House would accept the limited Senate legislation as a substitute for its bill.

No action can be taken until September at the earliest, because the House will be in recess if and when the Senate passes the measure.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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