In a victory for California and other coastal states, the House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would restore state veto power over federal oil and gas lease sales in the outer continental shelf.
The measure, approved 391-32, would have the effect of overturning a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that stripped states of the authority to review federal oil and gas lease sales.
A spokesman for the California Coastal Commission, which regulates development along the state's 1,100-mile ocean front, said the bill is significant because "it gives us stronger authority to assure that federal actions will be consistent with our state (coastal planning) program."
Similar legislation is awaiting floor action in the Senate and may be considered as early as next week, said an aide to Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), one of the measure's principal backers.
Despite widespread support in the House, the bill faces stiff opposition from the oil industry and the Interior Department, which conducts offshore lease sales for the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget has recommended a presidential veto but the White House has not announced its position, congressional aides said.
The House bill, authored by Rep. Walter B. Jones (D-N.C.), would return to the states the authority to determine if specific federal oil and gas leases are consistent with state coastal management plans, even though the outer continental shelf leases fall outside the state's three-mile territorial jurisdiction.
The power was taken away six years ago by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the state "consistency" provision of the federal Coastal Zone Management Act does not apply to oil and gas lease sales because they take place outside state waters and are "paper transactions" that precede actual drilling, often by years.
The case arose when the Interior Department in 1981 offered tracts for lease in the Santa Maria Basin, turning down California's demand to review the proposed lease sale. The state prevailed in U.S. District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but lost in the Supreme Court.
The high court, however, permitted states to retain their authority to review and reject plans for oil exploration and development on the leased tracts in federal waters.
"A number of states" have sought to overturn the high court decision, said Jack Liebster, the Coastal Commission spokesman, "because it only makes sense" to involve states in leasing decisions if they later will have the power to review plans for exploration and development.
The House vote drew applause from Panetta, who for the last nine years has authored the annual moratoriums that have prohibited new oil drilling off the California coast.
"If we are serious about the rights of states within our federal system," Panetta said in a statement released to reporters, "we simply must allow them a voice in decisions on activities that can have a serious impact on . . . the livelihood of coastal communities."
The legislation would not have an immediate impact in California, because President Bush has pledged to ban new oil and gas leasing off most of the California coast for 10 years, and off a small section south of Santa Barbara for six years.
However, Liebster said that passage of the legislation remains important because it would ensure the state's authority to regulate offshore leases should the President change his mind, or if his decision is reversed by a new administration.
The bill would officially reauthorize the coastal zone management program, first enacted in 1972, which gives the states the right to regulate much of the federal activity off their coasts. The program requires states to prepare coastal management plans that must meet the approval of the U.S. Department of Commerce.