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New drilling could bring highway money, GOP leaders say

November 18, 2011 | 12:38 pm

Would the promise of a faster commute entice you to support new offshore oil drilling?

Congressional Republican leaders hope so. They are drafting legislation that would steer revenue from new energy exploration into highway projects.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hopes to bring the proposal up for a House vote before the end of the year.

Dangling a new source of revenue for popular highway projects is designed to generate broader support for new energy exploration. But it’s already run into opposition from an influential senator, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and comes from a state where offshore drilling has been a hot issue ever since a devastating a 1969 spill off Santa Barbara.

Boxer said the Republican proposal would mire in controversy a transportation bill that enjoys bipartisan support. Additionally, she said in a statement, the proposal would "fall billions short" of the amount needed to fund projects.

The proposal also drew concern Friday from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a taxpayer watchdog.

Its president, Ryan Alexander, told a House hearing that the idea would be a "radical departure from the 'user pays' principle" for transportation spending, where drivers pay for highway construction and maintenance. It instead relies on "speculative" future revenue, he said.

"Paying for a couple of years of transportation funding with expected revenues from an increase in oil and gas drilling that will likely take many years to get rolling is not a responsible budget approach," she said. "It’s like buying the Ferrari tomorrow because you are sure a raise is coming sometime in the future."

Still, the idea could gain appeal as lawmakers scour for funds to maintain the nation’s aging infrastructure at a time when gas tax revenue has fallen because of increased vehicle fuel efficiency and opposition in Congress to a gas tax increase.

Like many measures introduced in Congress these days, the bill is being portrayed as a jobs measure.

"During these difficult economic times, with soaring debts and deficits and a highway fund that needs to be replenished, Congress should not pass up an opportunity to create jobs and generate billions in new revenue," Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Friday.

The bill is still being drafted, but it is expected to closely follow legislation approved by the House earlier this year that would open up, within five years, areas off Southern California, the Eastern seaboard and Alaska containing "the greatest known oil and natural gas reserves" and, within a year of passage, open the Virginia coast to drilling and expand energy production in the Gulf of Mexico.

It also is likely to seek to open a portion of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long coveted by pro-drilling forces, to energy exploration and to promote development of oil from vast shale deposits in the West.

The Obama administration recently called for opening Arctic waters to new energy production while keeping the Atlantic and Pacific coasts off limits to new drilling.


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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Handout