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House Republicans push new oil drilling to fund road projects

February 15, 2012 |  4:35 pm

PlatformA measure that would allow new oil drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration is headed for a vote in the Republican-controlled House -- but faces a gusher of opposition in the Senate.

The energy legislation, which includes a measure designed to clear the way for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, is being considered in connection with the GOP-written $260-billion, five-year House transportation bill. The House, which began considering the energy legislation Wednesday, could complete action on it Thursday.

Republicans say increased domestic energy production would generate jobs and revenue to help pay for traffic-easing projects at a time when gas tax funds have fallen. (Drivers are now motoring around in more fuel-efficient cars.)

But the drilling measures face opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate, especially from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who hails from a state where offshore drilling has been a hot issue since a devastating a 1969 spill off Santa Barbara.

The White House also has objected to the measures, saying they would take away the Interior secretary’s discretion to determine "which areas are appropriate and safe'' for exploration. The administration also said that the provision to advance the Canada-to-Gulf Coast Keystone XL pipeline would "circumvent a long-standing process for determining whether cross-border pipelines are in the national interest."

Though the legislation faces uncertain prospects, House Republicans, at the very least, hope to use Democratic opposition to expand drilling to highlight differences between the parties -- especially as high gas prices promise to become an election-year issue.

"Prices will only climb higher if we don’t take action now to increase our energy independence and develop our own American energy resources," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The bill would open up, within five years, areas off Southern California, the Eastern Seaboard and Alaska "considered to have the largest undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources."

It also would permit new energy exploration off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties from existing offshore platforms, expand energy production in the Gulf of Mexico and promote oil shale development in the West.

"Californians have spoken loud and clear. We do not want more drilling off our shores," Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) told her colleagues.

Citing the 1969 spill off Santa Barbara, she added: "We were outraged by the damage to the environment ... to our economy."

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek), noting the bill would exempt new drilling leases from state review, needled "my good friends on the Republican side" for "always talking about states’ rights" but writing a bill that "strips away the right of California to take care of its own coastline."

But a Capps effort to strike the provision to allow new drilling off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties was rejected.

Hastings, in opposing Capps’ effort, said it would "lock away significant resources that belong to the American people."

Critics of the controversial energy measures say they could jeopardize the transportation bill, which faces opposition from the right and the left -- and a White House veto threat -- over a variety of issues.

A coalition of groups, including Taxpayers for Common Sense and the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, sent a letter to lawmakers contending that using drilling revenue to fund transportation projects runs counter to the "user pays" principle for transportation spending. Under that principle, drivers pay for highway construction and maintenance. Critics of the idea also say it relies on speculative revenue to fund transportation projects.

The Senate is considering a $109-billion, two-year measure. Once the chambers act, House-Senate negotiators will attempt to reconcile differences to produce a final bill.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: A bicyclist looks at an oil-drilling platform off Southern California. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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