House passes offshore drilling bill

House Republicans passed legislation Thursday that would require the U.S. government to offer up offshore areas for oil and gas leasing, part of a wide-ranging GOP effort to expand domestic energy production amid $4 per gallon gas.

The bill is the first in a three-part legislative push by House Republicans on drilling. Two related drilling bills are expected to come up for a vote on the House floor next week.

The legislation, authored by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), would set a deadline for holding delayed Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease sales. It would also mandate the sale of leases off the Virginia coast, a plan the administration nixed after last year’s Gulf oil spill.

The bill passed in a 266-149 vote. Two Republicans voted against the bill and 33 Democrats voted for it.

On the House floor Thursday, Republicans blasted the Obama administration’s energy policies, arguing that the Interior Department is not moving quickly enough to encourage offshore drilling and issue key permits.

“We’re in this situation because of this administration’s policies that have shut off energy supply,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on the floor.

“We’ve got to reverse this radical approach,” he said.

Republicans also argued that the legislation would help to lower gas prices. But energy analysts say expanded U.S. oil and gas drilling would have no significant near-term impacts on gas prices.

Democrats blasted the bill Thursday and sought to tie Republicans to the oil industry ahead of the 2012 elections and amid growing public concern about gas prices.

“This is about big oil handouts, pure and simple,” Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said.

Holt called the Hastings bill the “Republican Amnesia Act,” arguing that GOP lawmakers have forgotten about last year’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Republicans rejected two amendments offered by Democrats. The first would ensure that a lease sale off the coast of Virginia does not interfere with offshore operations by the Defense Department and the Navy. The second amendment would block a provision in the bill that says environmental and safety reviews done before last year’s oil spill are sufficient for future leasing.

Republicans also rejected a motion requiring that oil produced on federal lands be used in the United States.

Earlier Thursday, Democrats tried to force a vote on a bill authored by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) to repeal the Section 199 domestic manufacturing tax deduction for the largest oil companies.

But Republicans rejected the effort, approving a procedural motion that allowed lawmakers to begin consideration of the Hastings bill and prevented Democrats from bringing up the tax break repeal legislation.

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The White House blasted the bill Thursday morning, but did not issue a veto threat. The White House also criticized a second bill authored by Hastings that would set deadlines for the Interior Department to approve offshore drilling permit applications. The bill is slated for a vote next week.

The bills would “undercut “ reforms put in place after last year’s spill, the White House said.

Rep. Edward Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called on Congress to release fuel from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to lower oil and gas prices.

“That’s what consumers need as they head into the Memorial Day weekend,” Markey said.

But Obama administration officials have signaled they are reluctant to release the country’s reserves, arguing that they should only by tapped in the event of an emergency. Republicans have expressed similar reservations.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday that the reserves are “there for a big emergency.”

Democrats introduced an alternative energy bill Thursday that would slash oil tax breaks for the five major oil companies and release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, among other things.

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