House approves bill requiring offshore oil drilling lease sales

Republicans cast the bill as an attempt to force the Obama administration to act on the lease sales, which they said would begin to help lower rising energy prices. While Democrats argued that the bill would do nothing to immediately lower prices, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said it is important to send the market a signal that the U.S. is resuming energy exploration.

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"When America ended the moratorium on offshore drilling, the prices went down," Hastings said. "It has never been explained by the other side, but it's pretty darn obvious. When you send a signal to the markets that you're serious about becoming less dependent on foreign energy, the markets respond."

Democrats dismissed these arguments.

"Somehow the hard-pressed commuters and consumers of gasoline in this country are supposed to believe that if today we unleashed all possibility of oil drilling, gas drilling [in the] offshore continental United States, we're going to be producing barrels of oil. False," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. "We're going to reduce the price of oil today. Equally false."

Connolly said to the contrary that there is "plenty of evidence" that oil prices are inelastic. "Driving is down, demand is down, supply is up, but so are prices," he said.

Democrats also argued that the bill would allow for environmentally unsafe drilling, because it would deem as sufficient an older environmental impact statement (EIS) for future projects. Democrats said this ignores the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, but Republicans argued that the bill requires other environmental studies to take place before any drilling can begin.

For these reasons, most Republicans voted against an amendment from Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) that would have required a new EIS. That amendment was rejected in a 171-248 vote.

The House also rejected an amendment from Connolly aimed at ensuring offshore drilling does not interfere with U.S. Navy activities, but Republicans said this issue was already dealt with by the bill. The Connolly amendment was defeated in a 176-240 vote.

Several Democrats raised the more general objection that the House should be focusing on raising taxes on oil companies. Several noted that big oil companies are generating record revenues as oil prices rise.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said oil companies get $30 billion in tax breaks, less than the profits of the top five oil companies in the first quarter of this year.

"Why are we, the taxpayers, subsidizing the drilling of oil when they are making huge profits doing it in the free market?" Pelosi asked.

Earlier in the day, the White House said it opposes the bill but stopped short of saying it would veto the legislation. Nonetheless, the Senate is not expected to take up the bill.

The House as early as next week could take up the related H.R. 1229, the Putting the Gulf of Mexico Back to Work Act.