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Gas prices spur move to open offshore drilling in California, Alaska, East Coast [Updated]

March 29, 2011 |  3:14 pm

Offshore rig

With high gas prices once again becoming a high-octane political issue, House Republicans on Tuesday launched a drive to open up more coastal areas to oil drilling, including a stretch off Southern California.

The pro-production legislation comes a day before President Obama is due to speak on energy security and amid heightened political anxiety among both parties over rising fuel prices.

One of three bills would require the Interior Department to offer leases, within the next five years, for drilling in areas off Southern California, the Eastern seaboard and Alaska containing ``the greatest known oil and natural gas reserves.’’

A long-standing ban on new drilling off much of the nation’s coast expired in late 2008 as high gas prices became a hot political issue, though the Pacific Coast is currently protected by Obama’s pledge that there will be no new offshore drilling there.

While the bills stand a good chance of passing the Republican-controlled House, they are likely to face trouble in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The measures come nearly a year after the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, leading the Obama administration to back off plans to open the eastern gulf and portions of the Atlantic Coast to oil and gas exploration.

`` We must unlock our American energy resources to decrease our dependence on foreign energy, to create American jobs, lower gasoline prices and protect our national security,’’ said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

But Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the panel’s top Democrat, said the bills show the ``same pre-spill mentality of speed over safety that was held by BP and others’ ’ leading to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Republicans have sought to blame the administration for price increases at the pump. But Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently said that ``the idea that our gasoline prices are high today because of some particular action the Obama administration has taken is not supported by the facts,’’ contending that the ``major force driving oil prices is the instability we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa.’’

Other GOP-sponsored bills introduced Tuesday seek to speed permitting for new drilling in the gulf and pave the way for energy exploration off the coast of Virginia, something the state’s Republican governor, Bob McDonnell has supported.

[Updated, 2:40 p.m.: Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) said, ``We learned the hard way how much environmental and economic damage can be caused by a major oil spill, and can’t afford another spill or accident. California is looking forward to a 21st century energy policy, not backwards, and House Republicans should do the same.''

Offshore drilling has long been a hot issue in California where a 1969 spill devastated the coast off Santa Barbara.

The move comes as the Obama Administration released a report showing that a many federal leases for oil and gas exploration are not being used. The report said 70% percent of the tens of millions of offshore acres under lease are inactive, including almost 24 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, which potentially could hold more than  11 billion barrels of oil and 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.]

Related:

Obama's offshore drilling plan seen as a political olive branch

Obama ends ban on deepwater oil drilling in Gulf of Mexico

--Richard Simon, in Washington

Photo: Bills introduced in Congress would put more offshore rigs, such as this one off the Coast of Santa Barbara, in Federal waters off California, the East Coast and Alaska. Credit: Chip Chipman/Bloomberg

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