Offshore Drilling Ban Nixed By House Panel

A House panel voiced approval Wednesday for developing natural gas in restricted areas of coastal waters, voting to remove from an Interior Department bill a long-standing moratorium on drilling on most of the country's Outer Continental Shelf.

It was a victory for Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who has campaigned to open offshore waters to natural gas development. But the action does not affect a presidential moratorium, in effect until 2012, that bars offshore oil and gas drilling in virtually all coastal waters outside the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

"I hope the White House gets the message," said Peterson. He said he expects "another big fight" over the moratorium issue when the spending bill gets to the floor. The Senate in the past also has rejected lifting the moratorium and President Bush has opposed lifting the existing Outer Continental Shelf drilling bans.

Peterson contended the country needs the offshore gas reserves to ease the tight supplies that have seen the cost of the fuel quadruple in recent years. "We have major industries who will not remain in America if we don't make natural gas affordable," he said.

Opponents of lifting the moratorium said if the offshore gas is made available, industry also will want to go after oil in areas now protected against drilling. Such development would harm states' tourist and recreational economies and "carry substantial environmental risks," said Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash.

The Appropriations Committee voted 37-25 to accept Peterson's amendment removing the moratorium language.

There has been growing interest in lifting the drilling bans, especially for natural gas, outside the central and western Gulf to ease tight natural gas supplies.

The Interior Department recently said that in its next five-year development plan it will offer leases in an area now off limits in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, but those leases for a region known as Area 181, are not under either the congressional or presidential moratoria.

Over the years, Congress repeatedly has included in its Interior appropriations bills language putting most U.S. coastal waters off limits to oil and gas companies. Presidential directives by President George H.W. Bush, President Clinton and the current President Bush have reinforced the bans.

Congressional delegations from Florida and a number of other coastal states have vowed to fight for continuation of the moratoria, arguing that oil and gas development could threaten their recreational and tourist industries because of a possible spill and the need for coastal support facilities.