PORTLAND (AP) – Environmentalists are worried about a bill in Congress that could lead to renewed oil and gas drilling in Georges Bank off New England’s coast, one of the world’s best fisheries.

Richard Charter of the group Environmental Defense calls the legislation “an attack on the coast.”

“This is a turning point in history,” said Charter.

But an industry spokesman, Thomas Michels of the National Ocean Industries Association, said the nation’s future energy supply is at issue.

“What we propose is to have a healthy, sensible debate on issues such as the future natural gas supply,” Michels said.

The two sides also disagree on whether drilling equipment injures fish and whales.

A bill in Congress would require a federal inventory of ocean areas along the East and West coasts that have been off-limits to drilling for two decades.

The House version does not allow drilling to resume, but the Senate version allows exploration. If the Senate approves its version, the conflict will have to be resolved in conference.

Former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton issued orders to prohibit most coastal drilling until at least 2012, but the current President Bush’s energy policy calls for exploration.

In 1982, Congress imposed a moratorium on new drilling within 200 miles of California and added New England waters two years later after concerns were raised about prospects of spills.

In effect, the only drilling now is done from some grandfathered rigs off California and in central and western Gulf of Mexico off Texas and Louisiana.

Some environmentalists say the Georges Bank, which extends from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia is roughly 185 miles by 90 miles, is an attractive target for exploration.

Because much of the area is less than 100 yards deep, it’s considered a premier commercial fishery with cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder, scallops, lobsters, swordfish and herring.

AP-ES-06-22-03 1539EDT

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