House OKs Ban on Drilling on Sensitive Lands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a blow to President Bush's production-oriented energy policy, the House on Thursday voted to block oil and gas development off the Florida coast and on the grounds of national monuments.

The White House is considering whether to open a part of the Gulf of Mexico for drilling, and Bush has said he would like to retain the option of exploration in some areas of national monuments.

But a broad bipartisan coalition in the House dealt the president double defeats by voting to ban drilling in both environmentally sensitive areas, at least temporarily.

In still another setback for Bush, the House also approved an amendment that would reinstate Clinton administration regulations on hard-rock mining that Bush had frozen because of opposition and legal challenges from the mining industry.

The votes, which came during debate on an appropriation bill for the Interior Department, were an early indication of the rough road ahead for Bush's energy policy and his efforts to roll back environmental protections that he considers onerous for business.

Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said the votes made clear that Congress will not support an energy policy too heavily skewed to increasing energy supplies without adequate emphasis on conservation and environmental sensitivity.

"This demonstrates a determined effort to get a balanced energy policy," said Boehlert, a leading GOP advocate of strict environmental protection.

Bush's allies tried to minimize the significance of the votes, saying the issues at stake did not involve core elements of his energy policy, such as his opposition to energy price caps or his support for expanded drilling in Alaska. They also held out hope that the bill could be changed later in the legislative process. It now goes to the Senate, where its fate is unclear.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan stressed that future negotiations with Congress still could undo the House actions. "We are going to continue working with Congress to make sure the president's priorities are reflected" in the final wording of legislation, he said.

But environmental lobbyists were exuberant. "This has been a complete repudiation of the Bush administration environment and energy agenda on the House floor, with a lot of Republicans voting against it," said David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society.

Debate on the Interior Department appropriation bill posed a challenge to Bush on questions of budget as well as policy. The bill's $18.9-billion price tag is more than $800 million beyond what Bush had requested.

Gov. Jeb Bush Opposes Drilling Off Florida

It is just one of several spending bills that illustrate how hard it will be for Bush to persuade Congress to stick with the fiscal restraints he has proposed. Already in the House, lawmakers have begun overspending the Bush budget on transportation, agriculture and other programs as work begins on the year's annual appropriations.

The setbacks for Bush on the energy and environmental amendments appeared to have caught both sides of the debate by surprise.

The amendment to prohibit issuance of new energy leases in national monuments was approved, 242 to 173, with 47 Republicans voting for it. Under current law, drilling has been allowed in some monuments, and the Bush administration has been considering expanding the practice.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), sponsor of the amendment, said such exploration would endanger the environment in some of the nation's most precious natural areas.

"We are talking about places like the California Coastal National Monument and the Giant Sequoia National Monument," Rahall said. "Are we really that desperate that we will allow coal mining or oil or gas drilling in these national monuments?"

Critics of the amendment said some of the areas that President Clinton designated for monument status late in his administration were chosen for political purposes and should not be shut off from exploration.

"These are not the crown jewels," said Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah). "These grounds do not deserve protection."

At issue in the Gulf of Mexico matter is the fate of a 6-million-acre expanse about 15 miles off the coast of Florida--a tract excluded from a federal moratorium on new offshore oil leases that applies elsewhere. Industry officials have been pushing to open the area to exploration because it is believed to hold a vast reservoir of natural gas. A planned sale of leases for the area will go forward in December unless the administration acts to cancel or postpone it.

The sale is opposed by the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And during Thursday's House debate, Republicans and Democrats alike in the Florida delegation argued vehemently against allowing the drilling.

"We do have some of the most pristine beaches not only in Florida, but across the world," said Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.). "All of us oppose oil and gas exploration" so close to the shoreline.

Republicans from other states argued that the Floridians were taking a shortsighted, parochial view that runs counter to the national interest in expanding the domestic energy supply.

"When we discover a promising domestic reserve of natural gas and oil, we need to move forward by opening the area to safe exploration," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

The amendment to block the drilling was approved 247 to 164, with 70 Republicans supporting it. Under the provision, the Interior Department would be prohibited from finalizing drilling leases in the area before April 1, 2002, thus thwarting the December lease sale.

The amendment on hard-rock mining was approved 216 to 194; it would prohibit the Bush administration from changing or killing regulations drafted by Clinton officials to hold gold, silver and other surface miners responsible for the environmental damage they cause on public lands. The mining industry ardently opposes the rule, particularly a provision that allows government land managers to reject bids for mining projects they believe would cause substantial, irreparable harm to natural resources.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's goal in crafting the regulations was to mitigate the environmental effect of some modern mining techniques, such as open-pit cyanide leaching, and to protect the public from being saddled with huge cleanup bills after mining operations.

The fate of those regulations has been up in the air since the Bush administration proposed suspending them in March. Last week, Bush officials announced support, at least temporarily, for a provision in the rule that requires mining operators to post bonds to guarantee they will clean up after their work.

The administration was not expected to announce its policy for the broader rule until next month.

The Interior bill also includes funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and in another vote Thursday, the House agreed to add $10 million to the $120 million Bush requested for the agency.

New Support for Arts Endowment

That action was a sign of how political attitudes toward the NEA have changed. With critics blasting it for subsidizing art they considered pornography, the office had been targeted for extinction when Republicans first took over the House after the 1994 elections. Failing that, Congress slashed its budget.

Artists rallied to the NEA's defense, helping it survive the attacks. The agency also mollified critics by taking steps to keep its subsidies from being funneled to controversial projects.

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