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Energy legislation allowing offshore drilling advances

H. Josef Hebert Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Legislation that would end the longtime ban on energy development along most of the country’s coasts and open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling advanced Wednesday in the House.

Opponents said Republican leaders were exploiting the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to pass pro-industry measures that they failed to get included in an energy bill signed into law only two months ago.

It is a “leave no oil company behind” wish list that will damage the environment and do nothing to ease high gasoline or winter heating costs, said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Attempts by Markey to strip the offshore development and drilling provisions failed, both by a 28-14 vote, in the House Resources Committee. The committee then approved the energy legislation 27-16.

The bill will be combined with proposals intended to spur expansion or construction of refineries – an idea being worked on Wednesday by a different House committee.

The effort to allow natural gas drilling off the U.S. coast attracted support from Republicans and Democrats. But some Democrats said it would be years before any of the fuel would become available.

The proposal from Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., applies only to natural gas. The legislation, however, would allow states to approve oil drilling off their coasts.

Since 1981, oil and gas development has been off limits in virtually all the coastal waters outside the central and western Gulf of Mexico. That was due to environmental concerns or worries in Florida and elsewhere that such development might hurt the tourist industry.

The coastal areas contain huge resources of natural gas. “We can’t wait any longer,” Peterson said.

“We’re in the middle of a full-fledged natural gas crisis” after the two hurricanes that disrupted natural gas production and processing, he said.

Peterson’s plan also would give states half of the royalties from the new drilling.

Separately, the House Resources Committee endorsed opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil development. The House repeatedly has called for exploiting the refuge’s estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil; the Senate has refused to go along.

Supporters said the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast exposed the country’s concentration of oil resources in one region and may persuade some senators to drop their opposition to drilling in the refuge.

Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee tried to find ways to spur the construction and expansion of refineries.

“More refineries will result in more domestic production of gasoline,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.

Barton’s plan included easing air pollution control rules on refineries and shortening deadlines for issuing permits. A government-funded “risk insurance” program would to shield companies against lengthy regulatory or court delays in refinery construction.

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