House Passes Bill Making It Easier to Drill

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled House passed the first of three bills Thursday aimed at speeding up offshore oil and gas drilling a year after the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

In a 266-149 vote that included 33 Democrats in its majority, the House approved a bill that would force the federal government to conduct three lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and one off the Virginia coast within a year, or by June 2012. Lease sales are the first step in a multi-year process that can culminate in drilling.

The Obama administration had postponed the sales after the massive Gulf oil spill, saying it needed time to conduct more thorough environmental reviews, to account for the blowout's effects on the Gulf ecosystem and to incorporate lessons learned from the disaster.

A major federal investigation into what caused the accident has yet to be released.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the House Natural Resources Chairman and the bills' sponsor, said Thursday the legislation would reverse actions by the Obama administration that have blocked or hindered drilling at a time of rising gasoline prices.

"The pain being felt today has been exacerbated by the actions of the Obama administration," Hastings said. He said opening up more areas to drilling would send a signal to the world market that the U.S. is serious about reducing its dependence on foreign oil and lower pump prices.

Hastings' two other measures -- which would speed up decision-making on drilling permits and mandate that the government sell offshore leases where the greatest oil deposits are -- are expected to be voted on next week.

None of the three measures is likely to pass the Senate, where Democratic leaders are more focused on ending tax breaks received by profitable oil companies. The White House said Thursday it would oppose two of the three bills because they would hastily open up areas to offshore drilling based on outdated environmental analyses and put unnecessary constraints on the government's ability to ensure permits meet new safety standards.

The environmental reviews, which covered the area where BP was drilling at the time of blowout, predicted and analyzed spills much smaller than what occurred last April. However, the government requires additional analysis before companies explore for oil, and again before they start producing oil and gas.

House Democrats mounted an unsuccessful attempt Thursday to force their own vote on repealing billions of dollars in subsidies for the five biggest oil companies. They also failed to get support for a measure to guarantee that all oil and gas produced from the leases would be sold in the U.S.

"Together, these bills will not relieve pain at the pump, but they will increase the chances of another ... disaster, costing lives, livelihoods, and hurting some of our precious natural resources," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. "Why? Because that is what Big Oil wants."

The three Gulf sales are currently scheduled to occur by mid-2012, and one could occur by the end of this year. The sale off Virginia at the earliest would happen in 2017.