Support for drilling underlies the rancor

Even as BP faces withering criticism on Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are defending offshore drilling in the wake of the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, suggesting that efforts to impose new production restrictions on the industry won’t come easily.

Drilling’s defenders are mostly Republicans, but some Democrats have said the spill shouldn’t deter efforts to increase domestic production that had gained momentum before the leak.

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“I don’t believe we can react in fear. I don’t believe that we should retreat,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said on the Senate floor last week. She told CNN on Tuesday night that lawmakers seeking to stop offshore drilling are “absolutely wrong.”

One early indication of how dramatic the political shift on drilling has been will be what is — and is not — included in the Senate energy and climate legislation.

The measure, which has not been released, reportedly would encourage expanded offshore drilling by providing more coastal states a share of drilling royalties. The bill could also be merged with broad energy legislation approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that includes wider drilling in the eastern Gulf.

Despite the spill, the authors appear unwilling to significantly alter that offshore-drilling provision because they fear that would unravel a delicate compromise between business and environmental groups.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who along with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has negotiated the details of the bill, said he didn’t think offshore drilling provisions would be changed.

“The more we can get oil and gas within the United States as we transition, I hope, to a total alternative clean-energy economy, the better we are,” Lieberman said this week.

David Di Martino, a spokesman for the Clean Energy Campaign, which supports climate change legislation, said the political dynamics may require the climate bill to include drilling provisions.

“People need to keep in perspective that we are not going to end our dependence on oil overnight,” he said.

But the energy and climate legislation will encourage development of clean energy that will eventually replace the need for fossil fuels, Di Martino said.

New drilling provisions could cost the support of people like Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who has pledged to filibuster any bill that expands Gulf drilling.

Nelson said Kerry has refused to commit to changing the offshore-drilling provision in the legislation since the spill.

Nelson and Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, both New Jersey Democrats, have introduced a bill that could increase the liability BP faces for economic damages caused by the leak.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Energy and Environment subcommittee, blasted the industry this week after emerging from a closed-door meeting with executives from BP and other companies involved in the spill.

“There is going to be a blistering, scalding indictment of the practices the industry engaged in to avoid the kinds of implementation of safeguards that could have removed the likelihood or possibility of this kind of accident occurring,” Markey said.

Defenders of oil drilling also say they want to know what caused the fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig last month that ruptured the well a mile below the surface. Some 5,000 barrels a day of crude are pouring into Gulf waters.

But they say that the spill doesn’t negate the need for the energy underneath the ocean floor.

“I support offshore drilling,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). “We aren’t going to get off of oil entirely. Either we drill in our country or we buy it from foreign countries, most of which are hostile to our interests.”

Nunes is part of a GOP energy rapid-response team that released a statement Wednesday in support of offshore drilling.
Republicans are linking the need to drill with oil prices. Per-barrel prices had been increasing, but fell to around $80 on Wednesday.

Making that connection was a winning strategy two years ago when Republicans used record prices at the pump to pressure Democratic leaders to allow two-decade-old bans on drilling to lapse. Those high gas prices also led to chants of “Drill, baby, drill” at the GOP presidential nominating convention and beyond.

Given the potential environmental damage the spill could cause, party officials are offering less enthusiastic support of the industry of late. Some, like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have withdrawn their backing for offshore drilling. Others, like Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), have distanced themselves from the pro-production chant.

But it isn’t certain yet that the spill will cause lasting political damage for the industry. Nunes said he believed most members of the House Republican Conference still supported offshore drilling.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has called for a “thorough investigation” of the accident.

But he added there was a “tremendous amount of potential energy off our shores.”

“What I don’t want to happen is some sort of mass hysteria to take hold and we put a moratorium once again on exploration, or a moratorium on new drilling and perhaps … a moratorium on existing production,” he told reporters after meeting with BP and other industry executives on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who had supported expanding offshore production, told The Hill that Congress should wait until the facts are in before deciding how to respond.

“I think this is a good time to really make an assessment of the technology that is available in these situations,” Webb said.

Paul Bledsoe of the Bipartisan Policy Center said the fallout on Capitol Hill won’t be clear until lawmakers have a better sense of what the environmental and economic damage of the oil spill is.

“The political calculus is in suspended animation, just like the slick in the middle of the Gulf,” Bledsoe said.

But Bledsoe said factors that led to the lifting of the bans are back in play, namely rising oil prices and a big economic incentive in the form of royalty payments from offshore drilling, although questions of drill safety could trump either concern.

“Some of the dynamics that led to the lifting of the moratoria are still valid,” Bledsoe said.

Ben Geman contributed to this article.