Democrats have decided to allow a quarter-century ban on drilling for oil off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to expire next week, conceding defeat in an months-long battle with the White House and Republicans set off by US$4 a gallon (3.8 liters) prices this year.
Representative David Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives, told reporters on Tuesday that a provision continuing the moratorium would be dropped this year from a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running after Congress recesses for the election.
Republicans have made lifting the ban a major campaign issue after gasoline prices spiked this summer and public opinion turned in favor of more drilling. US President George W. Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore drilling in July.
“If true, this capitulation by Democrats following months of Republican pressure is a big victory for Americans struggling with record gasoline prices,” House Republican leader John Boehner said.
Democrats had clung to the hope of only a partial repeal of the drilling moratorium, but the White House had threatened a veto, Obey said.
A House vote on the spending legislation could have come as early as yesterday. The Senate is likely to go along with the House action.
“The White House has made it clear they will not accept anything with a drilling moratorium and Democrats know we cannot afford to shut down the government over this,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “We look forward to working with the next president to hammer out a final resolution of this issue.” While the House would lift the long-standing drilling moratoria for both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a drilling ban in waters within 201km off Florida’s west coast would remain in force under a law passed by Congress in 2006 that opened some new areas of the east-central Gulf of Mexico to drilling.
Just last week, the House passed legislation to open waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to oil and gas drilling but only 50 or more miles out to sea and only after a state agreed to energy development off its shores. It quickly became clear that measure would not get the 60 votes needed in the Senate.
Republicans called that effort a sham that would have left almost 90 percent of offshore reserves effectively off-limits.
The Interior Department estimates that 18 billion barrels of recoverable oil lies beneath the Outer Continental Shelf.