House passage of a bill to allow more oil drilling off the U.S. coast is being hailed by some as a responsible way to address the country’s energy problems. The legislation has many drawbacks, which is part of the reason it has drawn a veto threat from the White House. A Senate proposal, while far from perfect, is a better solution.
With the crumbling of U.S. financial markets at least temporarily pushing energy concerns out of the spotlight, it is very likely that lawmakers will leave Washington without passing any legislation on oil drilling. Despite this, those seeking re-election, especially Democrats, will try to cast last week’s maneuvering as a step toward American energy independence. It is not.
The bill passed by the House would allow drilling 50 miles off the coast with state approval. Georges Bank, a productive fishing ground between Cape Cod and Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, would be off-limits.
The U.S. Department of Interior estimates that nearly 90 percent of the oil it believes to lie under U.S. waters is within 50 miles of shore. This makes the House bill virtually meaningless because companies will only drill where they believe they will find large oil and gas reserves.
Worse, states would not get any royalty payments from the new drilling. States now collect billions of dollars for allowing drilling off their coasts. This money is often seen as a trade-off for the negative consequences of oil exploration and production. Without royalties, few states are likely to take such risks.
The bill also included more than $18 billion in subsidies for alternative energy paid for by raising taxes on oil companies.
A bill crafted by 20 senators (10 from each party) is similar in many regards, but its modest expansion of offshore drilling was real, unlike that in the House legislation. It would give several southern states the right to decide to open areas off their coasts to drilling and would open additional acreage in the Gulf of Mexico. The legislation would require oil from these areas to stay in the U.S, a feel-good but largely meaningless provision since petroleum is a global commodity and it won’t make much of a dent in the country’s need to import oil.
This compromise legislation appears unlikely to be debated for political reasons. Democrats don’t want to expand drilling, and Republicans don’t want legislation to pass because blaming Democrats for inaction on energy, and thus high gas prices, is a key part of their campaign platform.
Congress has its hands full with a $700 billion bailout package for Wall Street. But they had an opportunity to consider comprehensive energy legislation. Instead, they played politics.