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Senate Backs Inventory of Offshore Oil and Gas

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Times Staff Writer

The Senate on Thursday backed finding out how much oil and natural gas lies beneath the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, despite protests from some coastal-state lawmakers who warned that the study could threaten the long-standing moratorium on new offshore drilling.

Those favoring the survey defeated a bid to strip it from a wide-ranging energy bill, 54 to 44. But it remains uncertain whether the provision will survive House-Senate negotiations on the bill’s final form.

Supporters of the study included Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who argued that the country should know the extent of offshore energy reserves in the event of a crisis.

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“Do we want to adopt an ostrich policy?” Domenici asked, adding that many offshore tracts had not been surveyed since the 1970s.

But opponents of the provision -- 33 Democrats, 10 Republicans and one independent -- contended that it was a prelude to an attack on the drilling moratorium that covers the United States’ coastal waters, except for large parts of the Gulf of Mexico and areas off Alaska.

The moratorium was put in place by Congress in 1982 and has since been extended to 2012.

Some coastal-state lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats -- said they saw no point to a study unless the oil industry hopes to launch a new campaign to expand offshore drilling.

“Oil companies are not going to spend millions of dollars to inventory our coasts just for the fun of it,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

“If we do not want the camel in our tent, stop it when it tries to poke its nose in.”

California’s two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, voted against the study.

The legislation would require the Interior Department to report to Congress on the potential energy resources beneath the ocean and “impediments” to oil and gas production.

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“An impediment is something to be removed, that is a hint as to the intention of these studies,” Feinstein said.

A similar provision was removed from the energy bill that the House passed in April.

But the influential chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), applauded Thursday’s Senate vote.

“Now more than ever, America needs to know what we have in terms of energy resources, and we better know where those resources are located,” Tauzin said.

“This provision does not mean we are going to necessarily drill in these areas, but we ought to know the facts so that we can make wise decisions in the event of crippling energy shortages.”

Despite Tauzin’s comments, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) expressed skepticism that the proposed survey would survive House-Senate negotiations on a final version of the energy bill.

“I expect the House to prevail on this point.”

Bush administration officials, who have supported the moratorium on new offshore drilling, took no position on the inventory provision.

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The issue not only divided members of the same party but also set off a fierce lobbying fight between environmental groups and business organizations. Each side vowed to highlight the vote in their rankings of lawmakers that they distribute at election time.

Environmental groups objected, saying that the survey -- which would include use of compressed air guns that send sonic blasts of air into the ocean in order to gather geologic profiles -- would threaten marine life, ocean habitat and the fishing industry.

But Jeff Eshelman of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America said the inventory was needed “so that we can have a legitimate, fact-based debate about our nation’s future energy supply.”

“Perhaps there is natural gas in this area; perhaps there is oil; perhaps there is nothing,” Eshelman said.

“Policymakers who suggest America should be kept in the dark on our energy resources might just find themselves literally in the dark if we continue to ignore this country’s energy issues.”

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