WASHINGTON - Seeking to blunt GOP efforts to permit oil exploration off Atlantic and Pacific coasts, House Democrats are pushing legislation they say would spur oil drilling on already available lands in Alaska, the West and the western Gulf of Mexico.
Republicans scoffed that the so-called Drill Act - imposing a tougher "use it or lose it" rule on leases already held by oil companies - would do little to boost oil exploration, saying current policies are aimed at the same goal. A vote was set for Thursday.
On the eve of the vote, the Interior Department issued a major new lease in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve, known as NPR-A. The Democratic bill would require a more active Interior Department leasing program on the reserve, which is located to the west of the off-limits Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, the subject of a long-standing battle between environmentalists and the oil lobby.
"Democrats brought forth their 'Use It or Lose It' bill without knowing it was already the law of the land," said GOP Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "Today we're reminded that the majority's efforts to 'unlock' NPR-A are about as necessary as passing a bill ordering the sun to rise."
The oil lease proposal is an effort by Democrats to counter a push by congressional Republicans to lift a long-standing drilling ban on most offshore U.S. waters.
With gasoline prices exceeding $4 per gallon, public opinion on energy issues is shifting in favor of a more permissive stance on drilling, even though the idea of opening the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, or the eastern Gulf off Florida's beaches to oil and gas companies has been long seen as a nonstarter.
Democrats are scrambling to appear pro-drilling - hence the "Drill Act" title for Thursday's bill - even as their leaders appear dead set against reversing the long-standing drilling bans along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Democrats say the industry should first go after oil and natural gas in areas where they hold leases. They also say Republicans are simply seeking political advantage with a pro-drilling plan that won't deliver new U.S. oil for another decade or so, and that the GOP's fixation on drilling is a smoke screen for the Bush administration's inability to prevent the sharp spike in gasoline prices.
"The administration's responsibility was to protect the American people from this kind of gouging, and they did nothing," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. "So today they're trying to deflect the very legitimate criticism of, 'What did you do on the watch?"'
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unveiled a bill this week aimed at curbing speculation in the oil markets that Democrats say has contributed to the rapid rise in the price of oil. Action could begin this week.
Republicans hope to use the bill as a vehicle for votes on further offshore exploration, among other pro-energy production measures.