Senate Bill Opens Portion of Gulf for New Oil and Gas Drilling

The U.S. Senate passed a bill that would open up a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico to new drilling leases for oil and natural gas. Supporters say they hope the legislation will expand the nation's energy supply and provide some relief at the gas pump. Texas Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn supported the bill, but there is little chance the House will approve it without some changes. From Capitol Hill, Terry Gildea reports.

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Eight-point-three million acres in the central gulf would now be eligible for new drilling leases. Texas would get roughly 10 percent of the revenue from new leases that would be shared by other energy producing states. Hutchison says the bill isn't everything she wanted, but it's a start.

"I think that Gulf states that have withstood for all these years the risk associated with drilling off our coasts be compensated and I think it is a fair compensation."

The House passed a more comprehensive dlling bill last month that would open up the entire U.S. coastline to drilling. State governments would control any leasing activity within one hundred miles of their coastlines. But neither bill allows states to share revenue on leases that already exist. Houston Democrat Gene Green was one of only a few in his party that supported the House bill. He says Texas should be compensated for producing mush of the nation's domestic energy.

"The problem with Texas is that we've already drilled a lot. And so it doesn't cover any production we have now, but it's really for new production - but representing the state of Texas - I'd like to say, well wait a minute - we've been doing this for decades and we're not seeing that benefit."

But Senators from coastal states that depend on tourist dollars have blocked drilling bills in the past. So lawmakers in energy producing states decided to narrow the focus to the Gulf of Mexico. Cornyn says passing a more comprehensive bill in the Senate is not politically possible.

"I don't think this is the last step. Because I think once people begin to see the benefits of this sort of deep water exploration that you'll see other states decide to participate."

Both chambers of Congress must now meet to work out the differences between the two bills. Senators from Florida and other coastal states have vowed to oppose any compromise that expands drilling beyond the Gulf. But House negotiators will not accept the Senate bill without some changes. Congressman Green says both chambers must find some common ground.

"I would hope the House can improve it, but I'd really like to leave this Congress with some bill - and if it's the Senate bill, I'll begrudgingly support it - but I'd like to see if the House and the conference committee could make it just a little bit better for those states on the east and west coast."

A compromise on the two bills is not expected until September, when Congress reconvenes after the August recess.

For Houston Public Radio, I'm Terry Gildea on Capitol Hill.