The Republican-controlled House on Thursday approved a new, albeit long-shot, bill to expand domestic energy exploration, including opening up new areas off the West Coast to drilling.
The measure would require lease sales by the end of next year for energy production off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, with production coming from existing offshore rigs or onshore-based extended-reach drilling operations.
It would also allow drilling off the Virginia and South Carolina coasts and expand energy production on federal land, including the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. It was approved on a largely party-line vote of 229-185.
In addition, the legislation would direct the Interior Department to develop a five-year plan that provides for energy exploration in coastal areas "considered to have the largest undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas resources,'' including areas off California.
Drilling off the Virginia and South Carolina coasts enjoys support, but offshore drilling has long been a controversial issue in California, where a 1969 spill off Santa Barbara devastated the coast.
Similar House-approved measures have died in the Senate, but House Republicans hope this bill, called the Lowering Gasoline Prices to Fuel an America that Works Act, will gain greater support with gas prices rising. At the very least, they hope to use the issue to highlight differences between the parties on energy policy before the fall election.
As the House debated the measure, 14 Democratic senators and one independent introduced legislation directing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the federal agency that regulates oil markets, to take emergency action to eliminate excessive oil speculation.
"I am getting tired of big oil companies and Wall Street speculators using Iraq as an excuse to pump up oil and gas prices," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), citing AAA figures that the national price for gasoline is the highest it has been for early summer in six years.
In the House, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, likened the bill, similar to others passed by the House and languishing in the Senate, to the movie "Groundhog Day.''
"Every year since the Republicans have taken over, when gas prices spike up, they pass imaginary legislation and pretend they are doing something about high gas prices,'' he said.
Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) assailed House GOP leaders for trying to "override the will of my constituents and California voters who overwhelmingly oppose new offshore drilling.''
Recalling the 1969 spill off Santa Barbara, Capps told colleagues that she knows firsthand of the devastation that can be caused when something goes wrong on an offshore oil rig.
But Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, called the legislation important to national security, citing the turmoil in Iraq.
"The best way to protect ourselves from price spikes caused by international conflicts is to increase the production of American energy resources,'' he said.
The California delegation broke along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it, except for Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who backed the bill. Democratic Reps. George Miller of Martinez and Grace Napolitano of Norwalk did not vote.