An Exxon station in Washington, D.C., displays gasoline prices. (Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — With high gas prices becoming a hot political issue, the House on Thursday passed legislation that would expand offshore energy exploration, even though Congress has yet to pass new drilling safeguards a year after the massive gulf oil spill.
The Republican-sponsored measure would open the Virginia coast to drilling and expand production in the Gulf of Mexico, but it faces opposition from the White House and long odds against passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Its approval came as gas pump politics has broken out in the Capitol.
Several bills have been introduced: The Big Oil Welfare Repeal Act would scale back industry tax breaks. The No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, or NOPEC, would permit legal action against the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for conspiring to restrict supplies or drive up prices. Senate Democrats hope to bring up a measure to end subsidies for oil companies in their chamber as early as next week.
Lawmakers from both parties are eager to show they feel the public's pain at the pump — and highlight their party's differences over energy policy — even though there are limits to what they can do to provide immediate relief.
"Last night, I had a telephone town hall with hundreds of my constituents," said Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio). "The overwhelming concern was the high price of gas."
House approval of the Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act comes after the BP oil spill disaster a year ago led the Obama administration to back off of plans to open the eastern gulf and portions of the Atlantic Coast to oil and gas exploration.
But with the national average price of gasoline approaching $4 a gallon, the measure passed 266 to 149 with the support of 233 Republicans and 33 Democrats.
It is the first of three pro-production bills the House Republican majority plans to bring up for a vote before Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer driving season. One bill would require the Interior Department to offer leases within the next five years for new drilling in areas off Southern California and Alaska and in the Atlantic containing "the most oil and natural gas resources."
Another would speed permitting for offshore drilling.
Even if it would take years for the oil to reach consumers, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the measure would "send a strong signal to the world markets that the U.S. is serious about producing our resources."
"Under the law of supply and demand, which my friends across the aisle have not found a way to repeal, more supply means lower prices," said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.).
"What's really going on?" said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). "It's market manipulation, price gouging, profiteering and speculation, but the Republicans won't take on their benefactors from Big Oil and Wall Street."
Opponents attacked the measure as a "spill amnesia bill," referring to the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 rig workers and spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude.
"For the sponsors of this bill, it's as if the worst and most costly oil spill in history never happened," said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) said the bill "represents a return to the pre-spill mentality of speed over safety."
The Obama administration has moved to strengthen drilling safety, but contended the bill would "hastily" open coastal areas to drilling, allowing the oil industry to use environmental reviews conducted before the gulf oil spill. The administration also has moved to issue more permits for gulf drilling, but Republicans complained it hasn't been enough.
The bill seeks to make Virginia the first state on the Eastern Seaboard in decades to open its coast to drilling. It would also set deadlines for leasing areas in the central and western gulf. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, endorsed the legislation Thursday at a gas station news conference near Richmond. It would require the Interior Department, within a year of the bill's passage, to conduct a lease sale for drilling 50 miles off the Virginia coast.
New offshore drilling was prohibited in much of the nation's coastal waters in the 1980s, largely in response to a devastating 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, but Congress let the ban lapse in late 2008 as high gas prices became a hot political issue — as it is again.
The idea of permitting drilling off California is a long shot in the Senate, where the state's Democratic senators are likely to mount a filibuster. But Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said, "I think we have to take it as a threat if the Republicans who control the House are going to push to drill off the coast of California."