Offshore drilling critics press the attack

Drilling is allowed in most of the outer continental shelf after bans expired in 2008. But areas in the eastern Gulf near Florida’s coasts still exist and would require legislation to change.

Administration officials have said they will re-evaluate their plans in light of the spill, although President Barack Obama has defended the need for the oil resources from offshore drilling.

Given that the administration’s plan wouldn’t open up new areas for drilling for a few years even if it went forward, the political impact of the Gulf spill may be more immediate on climate legislation that supporters hope to take up this spring.

Offshore drilling provisions in climate legislation had been seen as a way to draw support from Republicans and some centrist Democrats to climate legislation, and the lack of drilling provisions could cost some support from the other side.

But Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), another drilling critic, said the climate bill includes other carrots like support for nuclear power and “clean” coal that could attract more support. 

“I don’t think this is a single item issue,” Menendez said. 

In fact, Menendez said he believes the oil slick represents a “compelling reason” to adopt climate and energy legislation because the bill is designed to reduce use of fossil fuels.

But Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said the issue of offshore drilling is splitting the Democratic caucus, as Ben blogged about here.

Menendez joined Nelson and fellow New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg at a press conference Tuesday morning as part of their push to block new offshore drilling on Tuesday.

The three – Nelson, Menendez and Lautenberg -- have emerged as a new energy trio since the Gulf spill, which officials believe has poured around 5,000 barrels a day into the Gulf since an explosion and fire sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig last month.

On the drilling issue, the three may be competing with Kerry, Lieberman and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and the efforts to pass climate legislation, given the “climate trio’s” efforts to satisfy both business and environmental concerns in their bill through provisions like offshore drilling. At least for now, however, the climate trio is reduced to two after Graham withdrew his support over a dispute on immigration reform.