By Bart Jansen, Washington D.C. Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The Senate will vote today on oil drilling legislation that critics contend could open the door to drilling off the Maine coast. Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins both said Tuesday that they oppose drilling in the Gulf of Maine, which Congress has blocked for a quarter-century.
But the two senators are taking different approaches to today’s vote on the bill that would allow more oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
While Snowe is leaning against even debating the measure, Collins said she would support a debate – and then oppose the legislation if negotiations with the House ultimately lead to coastal drilling near Maine.
“I have serious concerns with the whole possibility of opening that door,” Snowe said.
Collins said the country should increase domestic oil production – without coastal drilling in the Northeast – while also pursuing conservation efforts.
“I think we need to draw the line very carefully,” she said. “I cannot support any bill that would put the Maine coast or any ecologically sensitive areas at risk for offshore drilling.”>/p>
The Senate legislation aims to open two new areas of the Gulf of Mexico to oil exploration, in a widely embraced compromise that provides a greater share of royalties to coastal states.
Congress has had a moratorium on Atlantic and Pacific coastal drilling within 200 miles of shore since the early 1980s.
But last month the House approved drilling within 100 miles of the coast, with a requirement that states act every five years to prevent drilling between 50 and 100 miles. The House bill would also authorize states to allow drilling closer than 50 miles.
Advocacy groups including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters oppose the House bill. These groups and lawmakers raised concerns about the shape of whatever compromise might be reached between the Senate and House bills.
“Any new offshore drilling is a step in the wrong direction, for America’s energy future and our coastlines,” said Maureen Drouin, a Maine spokeswoman for Sierra Club. “If this bill passes the Senate, it will certainly get much worse and the protections much weaker in a House-Senate conference committee, putting resources like the rich fisheries on Georges Bank in jeopardy.”>/p>
The vote today will test whether at least 60 senators are willing to limit debate on the bill. Otherwise, the bill would die from filibuster. But clearing the hurdle virtually assures the bill’s approval for compromise negotiations with the House.
High gas prices drove Congress to tackle drilling and other energy issues. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the drilling bill wouldn’t reduce prices immediately. But he argued it is important to spur domestic oil and natural-gas production.
Asked whether a compromise with the House could open more areas to drilling, Frist said he would strive to keep the legislation focused on the two Gulf of Mexico areas known as 181 and 182, totaling 8 million acres.
“I think it’s very important to do that,” Frist said. “In an election year, there are elements that try very hard to prevent passing anything.”>/p>
Collins said she would vote to limit debate, which keeps the bill alive.
Although Frist will oppose amendments, Collins said she would support amendments, such as increasing automobile mileage, to improve conservation.
“At the same time, we don’t want to put areas of our coast that are ecologically sensitive at risk of an oil spill,” Collins said.
Snowe also seeks amendments such as raising mileage standards. She is pursuing an amendment that would continue a drilling moratorium for the Northeast until 2022 to match a moratorium in the Senate bill for Florida’s coast.
But depending on anticipated amendments, Snowe is leaning against limiting debate.
“It invites the prospect of that type of drilling off the coast – to the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank – all of the areas that are so vital to New England fisheries,” Snowe said.