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The Realities of Drill, Baby, Drill

Lifting of Moratorium Does Not Mean Immediate Oil

The long-standing federal offshore drilling ban may be gone, but all sides in the debate over domestic energy production are gearing up for an encore battle in the early months of the 111th Congress.

Bowing to shifting public opinion and GOP pressure, Democrats allowed the drilling moratorium to expire in September, but party leaders have made clear the matter is far from settled.

“There will be time for us to reflect on it, time for others to act on it, so I don’t see this as an emergency situation,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said before the ban lapsed Sept. 30.

Republicans have seized on such comments to keep alive an issue that provided the GOP a rare legislative victory in the Democratic-led Congress. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week accused Democrats of “scheming to take that victory away.”

With the drilling moratorium and a separate ban on development of vast Western oil shale deposits now gone, Republicans are drafting measures that would expedite new domestic production by easing administrative hurdles.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) earlier this month unveiled a bill that would speed up drilling by bypassing the existing multiyear leasing process. The legislation would also split new leasing revenues with coastal states, while limiting court challenges to drilling.

House GOP leaders, meanwhile, last week asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to identify bureaucratic roadblocks that could be streamlined through legislation. “Once we have a clear framework, you’ll see our side really focusing in on those targets,” said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

However, expected Democratic gains in next month’s election could further curtail GOP attempts to advance such measures. Drilling proponents’ hopes may lie with a victory by GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), which would allow him to wield a veto pen, if necessary, over the Congressional drilling debate.

McCain formerly opposed offshore drilling, but he embraced it earlier this year as gasoline prices continued to rise. His vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is an ardent drilling supporter.

Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has also backed drilling as a “stopgap” solution to the energy crisis, but he is considered unlikely to part ways with Congressional Democrats should they attempt to reinstate the moratorium or advance new restrictions.

Neither the McCain nor Obama campaigns responded to requests for comment.

With the current continuing funding resolution scheduled to expire in March, the drilling fight could be revived early in the 111th Congress.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Durbin last month both called for new offshore drilling limits, noting that the moratorium’s expiration could allow oil platforms as close as three miles off coasts.

“There should be a ban where it has a direct impact on coastal, tourist communities,” Durbin said. However, drilling advocates say oil companies are unlikely to ever drill so close to shore.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tipped their hands last month when they floated legislative plans that would have imposed or extended new limits on energy production.

An early draft of the continuing resolution contained provisions from a House-passed energy bill that would create a new 50-mile drilling buffer zone off U.S. beaches that could be extended to 100 miles with state approval. Drilling would be permitted 100 miles out.

In the Senate, a $56 billion economic stimulus bill that failed in September would have extended until Sept. 30, 2009, the now-lapsed ban that prevents the Bureau of Land Management from finalizing regulations for the commercial leasing of oil shale deposits.

Republicans strongly opposed both provisions, but the Democratic leadership could face opposition from moderates within their own party should they try to advance such measures next year. At least 10 Democratic Senators are working with Republican colleagues to craft a production-heavy energy bill that will also promote alternative energy.

And the moratorium’s demise is backed by one key Senator — Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) — who is planning to push his own comprehensive energy bill early next year. Spokesman Bill Wicker said Bingaman has long supported ending the drilling ban, but said he will keep an “open mind” when asked about the possibility of new offshore restrictions.

In the House, dozens of moderate Democrats this summer signed on to a sweeping bipartisan energy bill sponsored by Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and John Peterson (R-Pa.) that would have lifted most drilling restrictions and invested hundreds of billions of dollars of new lease revenues into alternative energy.

Abercrombie spokesman Dave Helfert last week noted that the expiration of the moratorium accomplished one of the main goals of the bill (H.R. 6709) — easing drilling restrictions. That eliminates an incentive for the bill’s 141 co-sponsors to back new drilling limits. “They got what they wanted,” he said.

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