WASHINGTON -- In the latest sign of the political jitters on Capitol Hill over high gasoline prices, a House panel voted yesterday to relax a long-standing federal ban on new oil and gas drilling off most of the U.S. coast and to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.
The action by the House Committee on Resources improved the prospects for drilling in the Alaskan refuge, a long-sought Bush administration goal that is bitterly opposed by environmentalists. The measure will be packaged into an omnibus spending-cut bill before going to the House floor.
In the Senate, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has already approved Arctic drilling. The Budget Committee voted yesterday to include it in the spending-cut bill, which, by Senate rules, is immune from the filibusters that have blocked the drilling for years.
The House committee voted to attach to the budget bill another measure long sought by the oil and gas industries - letting states opt out of the decades-old federal moratorium on new offshore drilling.
But that measure faces a "steep uphill battle" in the Senate, said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, since a bipartisan group of coastal-state senators opposes it on environmental and economic grounds.
The drilling measures are expected to come before the House and the Senate as part of the budget debate as early as next week. Drilling foes hope a dispute over spending cuts will doom the measures.
New offshore drilling is now prohibited - except in a large part of the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaska coast - under a federal moratorium put in place in 1981 and set to expire in 2012.
Under the House measure, states could opt out of the drilling ban in return for a share of drilling royalties, a provision that opponents fear could be difficult for financially strapped states to resist. Virginia has expressed interest in opening its coast to energy exploration. The House proposal also would open to production a section of the eastern gulf that has been coveted by natural gas producers.
Supporters of both measures called them critical to the nation's economic growth and said they were made more urgent by the energy problems spotlighted by recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Backers of Arctic drilling say the area could yield 10 billion barrels of oil. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day. But opponents say the measure would not provide immediate relief from high prices because it would take years to bring the oil to the market. They also contend that it would spoil an environmental treasure they call "America's Serengeti."
The measure's supporters say it would give states greater protection, such as the power to ban new drilling within 125 miles of the coast beyond the current moratorium's 2012 expiration.
But Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who lost an effort on a 25-15 vote to scuttle the offshore drilling measure, contended it would undermine the ability of states to protect their coastlines from their neighbors' actions.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.