House Democrats offered a broader drilling proposal Wednesday that would allow offshore energy development beyond 50 miles from the coast if a state gives the go-ahead and opens all federal waters 100 miles off land.
The drilling measure is part of an energy package expected to come up for a vote next week that also would roll back tax breaks for the largest oil companies and require them to pay additional royalties, with the money to be used to spur renewable energy programs and conservation.
Federal waters within 50 miles of shore would still be protected from drilling. Waters off Florida's Gulf coast also would remain protected at least until 2022 under the plan.
But the proposal, announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, would essentially end the long-standing federal ban on oil and gas drilling that has barred oil companies from more than 80 percent of Outer Continental Shelf waters from New England to Washington state.
Congressional Republicans for weeks have demanded a vote on access to more of the country's offshore oil and gas resources, an issue that has become the core of GOP presidential hopeful John McCain's response to high fuel prices.
But Republicans have strongly opposed new taxes on the oil companies, as well as another of the Democrats' demands: that utilities nationwide be required to use at least 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.
Both provisions are key to the Democrats' energy legislation.
House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the Democrats' drilling proposal would still leave vast areas of federal coastal waters – believed to have 18 billion barrels of oil and large natural gas resources – off-limits.
“They're trying to pull a hoax on the American people,” Boehner told reporters Wednesday. He said that the Democrats' plan didn't appear to include any sharing of royalties with states and that, with no financial incentives, states would likely not participate, resulting “in little or no new American energy production.”
The Senate, meanwhile, is expected next week to take up several drilling proposals, including one that would open waters off the Atlantic from Virginia to Georgia and the eastern Gulf off Florida to drilling but keep the bans in place elsewhere. That plan also would allow for a 50-mile coastal buffer.