House OKs aid for mass transit

The House approved financial help Thursday to mass transit systems facing a surge in riders because of high gas prices. But Republicans blocked Democrats from requiring oil and gas companies to drill on the millions of acres of government land and water on which they already own federal leases.

The House voted 322-98 to authorize $1.7 billion over the next two years to lower fares and expand operations as more riders flock to public transit. The transit measure, which must still be considered by the Senate, marks the first time federal money would be used to support local mass transit operating costs.

The oil lease proposal was an effort by Democrats to counter a push by congressional Republicans to lift a long-standing drilling ban on most offshore U.S. waters. Democratic leaders maintained the industry should first go after oil and natural gas in areas where they hold leases.

But the measure was defeated 223-195, short of the two-thirds vote required, with only a handful of Republicans voting for it.

Democrats proposed the failed drilling mandate and the public transit help as lawmakers struggled to respond to public anger over $4-a-gallon gasoline with the July Fourth holiday and heaviest summer driving season approaching. As the House voted, oil moved into record territory at just over $140 a barrel, signaling that gasoline prices are likely to go higher this summer.

Opening the nation's offshore oil and gas resources has dominated the congressional energy debate in recent weeks. Republicans argue the drilling moratorium, in effect since 1981 over most federal waters outside the western Gulf of Mexico, has kept companies from increasing domestic energy production.

Democrats counter that the fenced-off waters of the Outer Continental Shelf shouldn't be opened to drilling, when leases already provided by the Interior Department in other areas aren't being exploited.

The White House said President Bush would veto the use-it-or-lose-it legislation if it came to his desk, calling “absurd” the claim that, with today's oil prices, companies are not pursuing all the oil that they can recover economically.

Democrats maintained the existing leases could produce 4.8 million barrels of oil and 44.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a day. The Interior Department, which manages the federal oil and gas leasing programs, said it could not confirm those numbers.

The claim that oil companies are “sitting on” potential oil and gas by not developing leases stems from a “misunderstanding of the very lengthy regulatory process” and business considerations involved in offshore oil and gas development, Stephen Allred, Interior's assistant secretary for land and minerals management, wrote to lawmakers.