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Bush Faces Tough Call on Offshore Drilling Survey

Some of his supporters back a controversial inventory of coastal resources, while others, including GOP allies in Congress, oppose it.

September 30, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush has been pushing for Congress to send him an energy bill virtually from the day he took office in 2001, but the measure he receives may present him with a difficult personal and political choice.

His dilemma involves the issue of what to do about the nation's offshore deposits of oil and natural gas.

On one side, Bush's longtime supporters in the energy industry, along with the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate energy committees, have pushed to include in the legislation language authorizing an inventory of the country's offshore oil and gas resources.

On the other, a number of Bush's GOP allies in Congress oppose the measure. So does the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, a state expected to be a battleground in the 2004 presidential election.

The survey is one of the contentious issues facing House and Senate negotiators as they work to complete the first overhaul of national energy policy in more than a decade. Although the conferees hoped to complete their work by the end of this week, it now appears they may not have a bill to send to the White House until later this year.

Opponents say the provision could threaten a long-standing moratorium on new drilling in most U.S. coastal waters, except for large parts of the Gulf of Mexico and areas off Alaska.

But Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the survey was critical to national security.

"What's the harm in knowing what America has in reserve, in the event of a catastrophic supply disruption?" he asked. "No one is suggesting that we go into these areas and drill right now. But given our vulnerability [to foreign sources], we shouldn't have our heads stuck in the sand either."

Bush has yet to take a position on the survey, but a White House spokeswoman said the president is committed to continuing the moratorium on drilling through 2012.

The fight over the survey comes as Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, steps up efforts to win support for another issue: opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. Short of the votes needed to overcome a threatened Senate filibuster over the issue, Domenici is hoping to swing senators to his side by pointing to measures in the energy bill that would benefit their states.

Among these is a provision sought by farm state senators to double the amount of ethanol, a corn-based fuel, that would have to be added to the nation's gasoline supply. A spokesman for Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said that if the energy measure included a number of "job-friendly" measures that would benefit his home state, including an $800-million federal loan guarantee for a power-plant project and a provision to increase tax credits for fuel produced from soybeans, his boss would be "hard-pressed" not to vote for the bill, even if it included Arctic drilling.

But Domenici has said he will drop the Arctic drilling provision if he cannot put together enough votes to overcome a filibuster that could jeopardize passage of the entire energy bill.

Democrats have complained about being shut out of negotiations and on Monday they called on the Republican committee chairmen to add to the bill a provision, backed by a majority of the Senate, to require utilities to generate more electricity from alternative sources, such as solar and wind power. Proponents said it would ease shortages and price spikes in natural-gas supplies.

The energy bill is expected to include language to promote construction of a $20-billion 2,100-mile pipeline to carry Alaskan natural gas to the lower 48 states and provide billions of dollars in tax breaks to encourage conservation and production. It also includes a number of initiatives that were part of Bush's 2001 energy plan, such as $2 billion for technology to make coal-fired power plants less polluting and a cap on the nuclear industry's liability for accidents.

If left in the legislation, the inventory of offshore oil and gas resources could lead to a tight vote on the final bill -- even if the Arctic drilling provision were dropped.

"Due to the importance our constituents place on protecting Florida's shores, it would be difficult for our delegation to support an energy bill that includes any language authorizing an inventory of [offshore] resources," said a letter being circulated Monday among the Florida delegation.

Florida lawmakers have expressed concern that the survey could endanger the state's tourism industry. The provision also has drawn objections from Republicans in other states, including Sens. Elizabeth Hanford Dole of North Carolina and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

California Gov. Gray Davis also has weighed in on the survey, writing in a letter to congressional negotiators, "When it comes to our coast, Californians speak with one voice."

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