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Correction Appended

After a stunning reversal by Democrats that allowed a decades-long offshore drilling moratorium to expire, one might expect pro-drilling forces to be celebrating and environmental advocates retreating in defeat.

But energy lobbyists say that while they may have scored a victory, it is just the first of many steps that will be needed before new oil platforms — among the largest movable structures in the world — are actually built and put to use.

Even if the ban no longer stands in the way, companies that want to do offshore drilling face a lengthy regulatory process with the federal government and hurdles within individual states as well.

All of that gives plenty of room for green groups to stop the drilling or to use the ban as a bargaining chip in energy legislation negotiations next year.

“I think you’ll see two very organized efforts,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research, which supports offshore drilling. “One that encourages Congress and the next administration to make sure the ban does not come back in any form or fashion. And another one from the environmental community that attempts to make sure it does.”

As part of the institute’s ongoing effort, it released a public opinion poll Wednesday that showed 65 percent of Americans support the complete repeal of the offshore drilling ban.

Such polling data was not lost on environmental advocates. “The Democratic leadership felt forced to do something on drilling in response to public sentiment that was fueled by a very well-funded advertising campaign and continued frustration over energy prices,” said Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen.

Former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), whose clients include the pro-drilling American Petroleum Institute, said the win is regarded as only a partial victory.

“It puts you a half a step closer to the drilling,” he said. “Democrats saw the polls and didn’t want to go into an election opposing 70 percent of the people on drilling. It gives some tactical advantage to those who wish to drill, but it’s far from a final resolution of the issue.”

Since the Department of the Interior isn’t expected to lease land for drilling until 2012, environmental lobbyists say they aren’t concerned that new oil rigs will spring up before there is an opportunity to reinstate the moratorium.

At the very least, they expect that tighter regulations and moving the drilling farther offshore, perhaps beyond the 50- or 100-mile limit, will be a large bargaining chip in comprehensive energy legislation next year.

Some environmental advocates are taking an even more positive perspective.

Chris Mann, a senior officer with the Pew Environmental Group, said his side will actually be in a better position to debate the issue after the volatile election cycle has come to a close.

“There are those in the environmental community who always thought that if they were not reinstating the moratorium, then we should let it lapse.

“I think we’re better off — rather than accepting some mediocre proposal now — we come back later and have a rational discussion. We could come back after the election and get a better deal, hopefully with a better administration. Even with McCain, it’s not out of the question to get some reasonable result,” Mann said, referring to Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

The environmental lobby had been pushing for an extension on the offshore-drilling moratorium for most of the year.

Despite their best efforts, several lobbyists said the decision to let the ban expire wasn’t surprising — the writing was on the wall almost two months ago that the Democratic Congress was going to cave into a veto threat by President Bush.

That didn’t necessarily make it any easier to swallow for disappointed environmental lobbyists.

“It is frustrating,” said Athan Manuel of Sierra Club. “The most frustrating thing about this is we weren’t able to turn this ship around using the facts. We tried to message and push back against the pro-drilling hysteria that whipped through the country in the post $4-a-gallon gasoline,” he added.

Environment America’s Anna Aurilio agrees.

“The reality was this is a huge power grab by Big Oil and their allies in Congress to block any real conversation about what it is going to take to solve our energy woes,” said Aurilio, who heads the federation of 26 environmental state groups Washington office.

The fight on the ground isn’t over. Manuel says the Sierra Club will continue to mobilize in coastal states. Their prime target: the tourism industry and coastal businesses.

“The fact that the moratorium has expired should help us convey the urgency,” Manuel said. “We’re going to keep working on this to get the public back on our side.”

Environment America also plans to continue its offensive. The group, which says it has already knocked on doors at nearly three-quarter of a million homes to stress the importance of the environment, will continue to push the message on a grass-roots level as they do voter mobilization drives.

Despite the failure, several environmental lobbyists said they expect Congress to act in 2009 before the continuing resolution expires in March. And if Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) wins, there will also be a push after the election to try and reinstate the drilling moratorium before the end of the year.

Of course, advocates of offshore drilling are already on the defense.

Dan Naatz, vice president of federal resources at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a group that has advocated for lifting the ban for years, said IPAA will continue its lobbying efforts full steam ahead.

“It’s a positive step,” Naatz said. “We certainly hope this has some real meat to it. … We will continue to work with Congress, both Democrats and Republican, to make sure people understand how important this is. There is a lot of work to be done. Nobody in the industry is naïve enough to think this issue is over.”

Added Erik Milito, managing counsel at the American Petroleum Institute: “The effort will continue because there’s still a lot of uncertainty. As long as Congress continues to discuss energy legislation, we have to make sure that oil and gas is part of the equation. We want to be at the table and make sure that Congress has that as part of the answer.”

T.R. Goldman contributed to this report.

Correction: Sept. 25, 2008

The article misspelled the name of Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club.

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