House votes

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WASHINGTON (AP) – The House rejected an attempt late Thursday to end a quarter-century ban on oil and natural gas drilling in 85 percent of the country’s coastal waters despite arguments that the new supplies are needed to lower energy costs.

Lawmakers from Florida and California led the fight to maintain the long-standing drilling moratorium, contending that energy development as close as three miles from shore would jeopardize multibillion-tourism industries.

“It’s a grievous assault on Florida and other (coastal) states,” declared Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., of attempts to end the drilling prohibitions that Congress first imposed in 1981 and has reaffirmed every year since.

The moratorium bars oil and gas development in virtually all coastal waters outside the western Gulf of Mexico, where most of the country’s offshore oil and gas wells are concentrated.

A measure, offered by Putnam and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., to continue the prohibition on drilling for natural gas – which some lawmakers argued was less of an environmental threat than oil – was approved 217-203 and inserted into a $25.9 billion Interior Department spending bill.

Earlier, the House, by a 279-141 vote, rejected an attempt by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, to lift the long-standing moratorium as it applies to oil drilling.

The offshore drilling issue dominated much of the debate over the Interior spending legislation.

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., argued that developing the offshore gas resources would produce none of the environmental risks – mainly the threat of a spill – associated with oil drilling. He won a victory when the drilling ban as it applies to natural gas was stripped from the Interior bill in committee.

“This country has an energy crisis,” said Peterson, arguing that access to supplies of gas beneath the waters of the country’s outer continental shelf will help drive down the cost of the fuel used widely by industry and for home heating.

“This is about the economy of America,” said Peterson, noting that the chemical industry and makers of fertilizer as well as other industries are talking of moving operations overseas because of high U.S. natural gas prices.

But lawmakers from coastal states, especially Florida and California, attacked the attempt to end a 25-year prohibition. They said an oil spill could devastate their states’ economies, especially tourism.

“Drilling for natural gas means drilling for oil,” argued Capps, citing industry views that where there is gas, often oil is found and probably would be developed. “Drilling three miles off our coast will not lower gas prices today or anytime in the near future.”

Peterson insisted that lifting the congressional moratorium wouldn’t mean drilling right away. A separate drilling ban on offshore areas outside the western Gulf has been put in place by President Bush and would not be affected by the congressional action, he said.

But Capps said if Congress lifts its ban, there would be growing pressure on the White House to do the same.

AP-ES-05-18-06 2218EDT

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