WASHINGTON — In a stunning political turnabout, the House voted Tuesday to end a long-standing ban on new offshore oil drilling as part of an energy bill aimed at rebutting Republican election-year attacks that the Democratic majority wasn't doing enough to try to ease the public's pain at the pump.
The measure would let states decide whether to permit energy exploration 50 to 100 miles off their coasts, ending a drilling ban that was put in place for much of the California coastline in 1981 and expanded to much of the rest of the United States in 1985. It would allow drilling 100 miles or more offshore regardless of a state's wishes.
The bill drew a veto threat from the White House, which contended that it didn't go far enough to generate new domestic supplies of oil and natural gas and objected to a number of its other provisions, including the repeal of oil industry tax breaks that it said could discourage new exploration.
Its prospects are uncertain in the Senate, which may begin debating energy legislation as early as Wednesday. The 236-189 House vote was, until recently, unthinkable.
"Before us today is landmark legislation that would for the first time since 1982 sweep away moratoria precluding oil and gas leasing in much of the federal waters off America's coastlines," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.). The drilling ban was first approved in 1981 as part of the 1982 Interior Department spending bill.
But the unthinkable became viewed as political necessity in an election year when gas prices have become a hot issue. Democratic leaders saw the legislation as preferable to the alternative: the scheduled Sept. 30 expiration of a ban on new drilling as close as three miles to the coast.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said her preference was to retain the drilling ban, "but we don't have the votes to do that."
The bill includes a number of Democratic priorities, including repealing $18 billion in oil industry tax breaks and using the money to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. It would require utilities to generate 15% of their electricity by 2020 from cleaner sources, such as the sun and wind. And it would force oil companies to pay additional royalties for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
It also includes measures aimed at preventing future misconduct in the federal agency responsible for collecting oil and natural gas royalties, a response to recent revelations that Minerals Management Service employees accepted gifts and had sex with industry contacts.
While Democrats have resisted ending the drilling ban, they faced increasing political pressure to do so. President Bush and GOP presidential nominee John McCain have called for lifting it entirely, and Democratic nominee Barack Obama has said that he would consider limited offshore drilling as part of a broader energy-policy compromise.
Even in California, where a 1969 oil spill devastated the Santa Barbara coastline, public support for offshore drilling has increased, though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has opposed lifting the drilling ban.
Rahall called the bill a compromise "between the drill-nowhere crowd and the drill-everywhere crowd."
Republicans complained that the bill denied states a share of the drilling royalties, removing a strong incentive for them to open their coasts. They also argued that the 50-mile buffer would exclude potentially large reserves of oil and natural gas.
"Are we now to believe that these same liberal Democrats standing before us today with a salesman smile on their face, are we to believe them that they are now declaring that this is a pro-drilling bill?" Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) asked. "There's an election coming up, and Democrats are desperately in search of political cover."
With Congress set to adjourn before the end of the month -- and partisan tensions growing as election day nears -- there may not be enough time for the House and the Senate to reconcile any differences and send a bill to Bush that he will sign.