By Bart Jansen, Washington D.C. Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Drilling for oil and natural gas would be allowed 50 miles off Maine’s coast for the first time in nearly a quarter-century under legislation approved Thursday in the House. The bill’s prospects remain uncertain, however, because of a threatened filibuster in the Senate. Also, the House measure would give states power to push their boundaries out to 100 miles or authorize drilling less than 50 miles from shore.
Drilling has been prohibited within 200 miles of the shore under annual provisions in spending bills. The ban on drilling in what is called the Outer Continental Shelf began off the coast of California in 1982 and included New England two years later.
But the House voted 232-187 Thursday to allow drilling, which is expected to occur primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. Reps. Tom Allen and Mike Michaud, both D-Maine, voted against the bill, citing concerns that accidents could hurt tourism and commercial fishing.
“The heart of this bill is to drive states to allow drilling offshore,” Allen said. “We don’t need to do that, at least at this stage.”>/p>
Michaud criticized the Republican president and congressional leadership for failing to reduce consumption of fossil fuels rather than propose more drilling.
“The congressional leadership has once again threatened Maine’s tourist and fishing industries with an ill-advised plan for coastal drilling,” he said.
Conservationists and other critics of coastal drilling fear that accidental spills could spoil commercial fishing and tourism and affect public health in Maine. Advocacy groups opposed to the legislation include the League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.
Despite House approval, Florida’s two senators – Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez – vowed to filibuster the legislation. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both R-Maine, also oppose lifting the drilling ban.
The House bill would allow drilling from 50 to 200 miles of shore, though states could set the limit at 100 miles – or under 50 – by voting to do so every five years.
Muddying the debate is the fact that former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton each signed executive orders similar to the existing 200-mile moratorium. The order is set to expire in 2011, though President Bush could abolish it at any time without a congressional vote.
Waters covered by the ban hold 19 billion of the 86 billion barrels of oil thought to lie beneath the Outer Continental Shelf, and 86 trillion of the 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service.
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who drafted the bill as chairman of the Resources Committee, said oil and gas deposits can be developed while protecting the environment. “It’s time to stop saying no.”>/p>
He broadened the legislation’s appeal by changing the way revenue from federal oil and gas royalties would be shared with states. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the bill would funnel $20.6 billion to states from now until 2017, with all but $1.7 billion going to four states that already have drilling: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
“This bill will spur an immediate debate on the state level regarding the safety, feasibility and necessity of offshore energy production,” said Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa.
But California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opposed the legislation. Officials from other states with beaches, including New Jersey and Delaware, opposed the legislation as a threat to their multibillion-dollar tourism industries
“How do we opt out when New York or Virginia has a spill and it comes to our shores?” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. “It would devastate our tourism.”>/p>
About 3 million gallons of oil spilled from offshore oil and gas wells in 73 incidents from 1980 to 1999, according to a federal Minerals Management Service report. Decades ago, major oil spills occurred from offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and along the California coast.
Although drilling isn’t expected immediately in Maine waters, the concern among lawmakers and conservationists is that a spill would taint fisheries. A spill within the Gulf Stream off the East Coast could move as far as 140 miles in 24 hours, the Sierra Club warned, based on a University of Miami study.
“Oil and gas drilling threatens to destroy a way of life in Maine’s coastal communities,” said Matthew Davis, a spokesman for Environment Maine.