WASHINGTON – The House, responding to growing public demand for more domestic energy, voted Wednesday to end a quarter-century ban on oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, giving Republicans a major victory on energy policy.
An extension of the ban for another year was left off a $630 billion-plus stopgap government spending bill that President Bush had threatened to veto — possibly shutting down the government — if the anti-drilling measure were included.
The bill was approved 370-58 and now goes to the Senate, where it is likely to be approved within the next few days, also without the drilling ban.
The decision to avoid a fight with the White House over offshore drilling marks a major shift by Democrats on energy policy and a reflection that the GOP argument for more domestic energy production had found a support among voters this election year, even though coastal states long have worried that offshore drilling might cause spills, soil beaches and threaten their tourist businesses.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain has made expanded offshore drilling a central part of his campaign, arguing that access to an estimated 18 billion barrels of oil in the off-limits Outer Continental Shelf is essential if the country is to become more energy independent.
McCain's Democratic presidential rival, Barack Obama, also has endorsed limited expansion of offshore drilling, but only as part of a broader energy package that boosts use of alternative energy sources and increases efficiency.
Lifting the offshore ban does not itself mean drilling in the offshore waters is imminent. But it could set the stage for the Interior Department to offer leases in some Atlantic federal waters as early as 2011 under its current five-year offshore drilling plan.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement: "Unfortunately, the president's willingness to veto any sensible compromise on offshore drilling, which would have threatened to shut down the government and send a dangerous signal during these hard economic times and a financial crisis on Wall Street, led to the expiration of the current moratorium."
She made clear the battle over offshore drilling was far from over, saying she looked forward to addressing the issue "with new leadership in the White House."
Even before the House vote, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced legislation to protect Georges Bank off New England — an area believed to have significant oil resources — from drilling.
In the Senate, Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, "We look forward to working with the next president to hammer out a final resolution of this issue."
Democrats could reinstate the ban next year as part of a new spending measure. Or they could push legislation allowing limited drilling in some areas such as the southern Atlantic, with wide coastal protective buffers. But even if Democrats expand their majorities in the next Congress there's no assurance they will have the votes to reinstate the sweeping ban that has been in effect off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts since 1981.
"It is a very big step forward," declared House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, vowing to press the offshore drilling issue aggressively next year, including a push to give states a share in the billions of dollars in royalties that are likely to be collected once energy companies begin producing oil and natural gas in newly opened areas.
The Interior Department estimates about half the estimated 18 billion barrels of oil lies off the California coast.
Waters off the western beaches of Florida remain off limits to energy development, at least until 2022, under a law Congress passed two years ago that opened 8.3 million acres of the east-central Gulf to drilling.