Obama's offshore drilling push shakes up congressional fight over climate bill

President Barack Obama’s offshore drilling proposal has shaken up the Capitol Hill climate change fight.

The White House has been emphasizing its support for nuclear power and oil drilling as it courts Republican — and centrist Democratic — endorsements of greenhouse gas emissions curbs.

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Under the administration plan, the Interior Department will proceed with a lease sale for companies interested in drilling 50 miles off the Virginia coast before 2012. Leasing off the coasts of other mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states would be authorized in Interior’s 2012-2017 program.

The White House is also calling for opening a major swath of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which is mostly off-limits under a 2006 Gulf drilling law.

While most of the drilling proposal can be undertaken using executive power, expanded drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would require congressional approval. That will surely play a role in the fight over energy and climate legislation that Democrats hope to bring to the floor.

Republicans called Obama’s plan too narrow, as it closes off or delays leasing or sales in other areas.

The energy consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners, in a research note Wednesday, said the limits of the White House plan give architects of the Senate energy and climate bill an opening to woo new support.

“One obvious implication of today’s announcement: delaying and canceling OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] sales gives lawmakers the opportunity to ‘sweeten’ a climate bill by restoring or accelerating sales,” ClearView states.

But the White House and the architects of Senate legislation — Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — risk losing support among liberal Democrats and environmentalists as they seek expanded drilling.

For instance, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) attacked the plan Wednesday.

“Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” Lautenberg said in a prepared statement.

Environmental groups that are on board with efforts to craft a compromise climate change and energy bill — such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council — also slammed the proposal.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman plan to put their own stamp on offshore drilling in the bill they hope to unveil next month. Senators and industry officials briefed on their plan said earlier this month that it would give coastal-state governments some discretion about the extent of development off their shores.

One idea reportedly discussed in briefings on the plan would not allow drilling within 35 miles of state shores unless the states agreed to it, while it would be allowed in the 35-75 mile range unless states formally objected.

Kerry believes wider drilling is part of a recipe for Senate passage.

“In the difficult work of putting together a 60-vote coalition to price carbon, Sen. Kerry has put aside his own longtime policy objections and been willing to explore potential energy sources off our coasts as part of a suite of alternative solutions,” Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith said Wednesday.

Republicans were generally lukewarm — at best — to the Obama administration plan Wednesday, and many attacked the proposal, calling it too modest. The plan also scuttles some proposed Alaska lease sales.

White House spokesman Bill Burton largely deflected questions Wednesday about whether the drilling push would help the push for climate change legislation.

“I would say that it’s obviously a part of the climate legislation and the entire package that the president is working with Congress to move forward,” he said when asked about the implications of the drilling plan on the Capitol Hill climate change debate.

“So I would say that this is mostly about coming through on a promise that he made to the American people that he would have a comprehensive energy plan that would include some increased domestic production of energy but also some big investments in renewable technology, as well as finding ways to promote efficiency and things like that. So all these things are connected,” he added.

Something else to watch: Several lawmakers who support wider offshore drilling want the Senate energy and climate bill to give coastal states a nice cut of what could be billions of dollars in leasing and royalty revenue.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a centrist swing vote in the climate fight, on Wednesday applauded the plan to proceed with leasing off Virginia’s coast — but reiterated his call for Virginia to receive a share of the money.

“This policy should be coupled with a fair and equitable formula for profit-sharing between the federal and state government in order to attract well-paying jobs to the commonwealth and support a range of projects, from clean energy development to transportation infrastructure to coastal restoration,” Webb said.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman plan to include “revenue sharing” in their bill, according to Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has been briefed on the brewing legislation, and several published reports. Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama already won revenue sharing under the 2006 law.

Click here to see a map that describes the Alaska offshore drilling strategy.

Click here to see a map that describes the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico drilling strategies.

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