WASHINGTON — A long-standing congressional ban on new offshore oil drilling will expire in seven days, with Democratic leaders conceding Tuesday they stand no chance of renewing it this year over President Bush's opposition -- and in an election year in which gasoline prices have become a hot campaign issue.
With the moratorium lapsing, the issue will gain greater prominence in the election because it will be up to the next president and Congress to decide whether to renew all or part of the ban, which was imposed in 1981 to put much of the California coast off-limits to new oil rigs and expanded to much of the rest of the U.S. coasts in 1985.
"This next election will decide what our drilling policy will be," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain, like President Bush, has called for lifting the ban entirely, whereas Democratic nominee Barack Obama has said he would consider limited offshore drilling as a compromise in a comprehensive energy policy.
Once the ban expires, oil companies could seek federal approval to drill three miles offshore or farther. Congressional supporters of the moratorium hope that before any new drilling can begin they can renew it or at least win approval of compromise legislation that would forbid energy exploration up to 50 miles off the coast but let states decide whether to allow it beyond that.
"I think it's awful," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "This battle is not over. We will come back and fight another day -- that's for sure."
Rep. Lois Capps, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, where a 1969 oil spill devastated the coastline, said, "I hope that when Congress revisits this issue next year, with a new president, we can negotiate a compromise that respects the need to protect coastal states and puts our country on a path to a clean-energy future."
But Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said, "After a long summer of $4 gas, with winter home heating bills on the way, this good news could not have come too soon."
The drilling ban had been included annually in spending bills. But the current ban expires Sept. 30, and 155 House Republicans and 49 Senate Republicans pledged to fight any effort to extend it as part of a must-pass bill needed to keep the government funded into next year. That spending bill, which will come before the House and the Senate this week before Congress recesses for the fall campaign, will include $25 billion in loans to help the auto industry build more fuel-efficient cars.
Democratic leaders faced opposition to extending the ban not only from the White House and many Republicans but from politically anxious members of their own caucus who have come under attack for not doing more to increase domestic energy supplies.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), said Obey had "negotiated the best package he could get with the White House to take a budget standoff off the table" so Congress could address the economic crisis.
Democrats could have tried to include an extension of the drilling ban, or even their compromise proposal, in the spending bill and dared Bush to veto it. But neither party wanted to risk a repeat of the government shutdown like the ones that occurred in the bitter 1995-96 budget impasse between President Clinton and congressional Republicans.
"The White House made it clear any new drilling provision was a nonstarter," Hammill said.
Jeffrey Eshelman of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America said that "in light of the financial meltdown, lifting the offshore ban makes perfect sense. It means more American energy, more jobs and increased tax and royalty revenue for the U.S. Treasury."
Once the moratorium expires, said Richard Charter, a consultant to the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, "coastal states could reasonably expect a pre-lease planning timeline of approximately 18-24 months, at a minimum, between the approval of a federal lease sale" at the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service "and the actual sale of seafloor lands and drilling rights to the oil industry in a lease sale."
"Only action by the next administration would stand between our fragile coastlines and the threat of oil spills and other drilling damage," he said.
Democrats tried to include in the stopgap spending bill language from a House measure that would have let states decide whether to permit energy exploration 50 to 100 miles off their coasts, but they were rebuffed by the White House. The bill's critics complained that the 50-mile buffer would exclude potentially large reserves of oil and natural gas.
Though an extension of the drilling ban was left out of the draft spending bill, the Senate on Tuesday approved $17 billion in tax breaks to promote development of cleaner energy sources, such as solar and wind power. The measure, which now goes to the House, also would shield millions of middle-class taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax.