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A Vote Against Drilling Off Coast

Congress: In a rebuff of Bush administration, House approves cutoff of federal funds used to support new oil wells off California.

July 18, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a bid to call attention to what they say is unequal treatment by the White House, members of California's congressional delegation won a bipartisan House vote Wednesday to cut off federal money needed to permit new oil drilling off the state's coast.

The amendment to an Interior Department spending bill passed 252 to 172, with the support of 67 Republicans.

Supporters of the amendment, including 42 of California's 52 House members, said they hoped the vote would nudge the White House to buy out leases off California's Central Coast--as President Bush agreed to do last month for controversial offshore leases in Florida, where his brother Jeb is running for reelection as governor.

"This vote puts Congress on record against new drilling off California's coast," said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), who sponsored the amendment with Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.). Capps called its passage "a major step toward terminating the leases that threaten the central coast's environment and economy."

The half-hour debate on the amendment was charged with accusations of favoritism on Bush's part.

"The problem we have here is we just haven't been able to find any of his relatives in California," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.). "I hope if you're a Bush relative in California--I don't care if it's a second cousin, third time removed--call the White House and ask him to take care of California."

Wednesday's effort to curtail administrative funding earmarked for helping oil companies act on outstanding drilling leases in federal waters off the California coast mimicked tactics used in the past by other states.

Last year, a similar vote on drilling off the coast of Florida was used by that state's delegation to help fuel their fight to keep their coast pristine. That vote passed 247 to 184, with the support of 70 Republicans.

But opponents called the amendment on California's leases meaningless because activity on new sites off the state's Central Coast had already been suspended last year by a federal judge, a decision now on appeal. Furthermore, they argued that continuing to lock up regions of the country against new oil exploration was the wrong answer

"We cannot reduce the amount of energy production that our country has today without dramatically impacting our freedom," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). "We'd better not tie our hands behind our back with this amendment and others like it."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) spoke against the amendment, saying it amounted to helping "some very wealthy people concerned about their view."

Rohrabacher, who told his colleagues he is an avid surfer and scuba diver who spends every weekend in the ocean, said he believes a move away from offshore drilling platforms would mean more oil tankers and greater risk for the coastline. "It's trendy to be against offshore drilling," he said.

"Why is it that we've got people in this body who will vote against any type of energy development when it comes to oil or natural gas? Why is that, when they realize we have people overseas at this moment risking their lives because our country is dependent on potentially hostile powers for our oil?" Rohrabacher said.

"My California colleagues and I have been fighting [against offshore drilling] for many years," said Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma), one of several California Democrats to speak for cutting off funding. "It is not a fad."

Nine California Republicans--Rohrabacher, John T. Doolittle (Rocklin), Wally Herger (Marysville), Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Santa Clarita), Gary G. Miller (Diamond Bar), Richard W. Pombo (Tracy), George P. Radanovich (Mariposa), Ed Royce (Fullerton) and William M. Thomas (Bakersfield)--voted against the amendment. Democrat Tom Lantos (San Mateo) did not vote.

The fate of 36 offshore leases--some of which are next to Channel Islands National Park--has become a hot issue in the gubernatorial race between Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Republican businessman Bill Simon Jr. Davis' request to Interior Secretary Gale Norton to buy out California's leases--as the department did for Florida--was rejected last month.

In a letter, Norton cited ongoing oil production off California's coast as evidence that "Florida opposes coastal drilling and California does not."

But Simon--who has come out strongly against new offshore drilling--emerged from a White House meeting last month saying he had Bush administration support to sit down and talk about ridding the California coast of oil rigs.

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