Vote may be today on law allowing coastal drilling

After months of political assault from Republicans over high gasoline prices, House Democrats are preparing legislation that would relax a decades-old ban on oil drilling along the coast of the Carolinas and much of the country.

The legislation, still being assembled Wednesday for a vote as early as today, would also require utility companies to generate more power from renewable sources, provide tax incentives for alternative energy such as wind power, and institute new conservation programs.

The measure, which would retain current restrictions on drilling off the Gulf Coast of Florida, would repeal some federal subsidies for oil companies and seek to improve the collection of royalty payments.

“Our energy legislation will bring down gas prices, protect taxpayers, invest in clean renewable energy and provide an American-owned energy policy that the Bush-McCain Republicans have failed to deliver for the past eight years,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

The proposal, coming as the Senate develops a similar plan, represents a stark reversal for Pelosi, D-Calif., who had adamantly opposed a vote on an expansion of offshore drilling after being part of the coalition that has kept the coastal ban in place since the 1980s.

But Republicans have captured some political momentum by accusing Democrats of resisting domestic production that could eventually lower gas prices and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign sources of oil.

Democrats say the legislation will rob Republicans of a potent issue by giving Democrats an opportunity to vote for more drilling and claim credit for responding to high gas prices.

Top Republicans said that they had successfully forced the Democratic hand on drilling, but that the emerging proposal still fell far short of what was needed.

“They are trying to pull a hoax on the American people, something that looks like an energy plan but does nothing about more oil and gas and more American-made energy,” said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader. “That's because their caucus for 30 years has blocked every attempt to open up more drilling for oil and gas in America.”

Under the Democratic approach, the federal government could lease drilling rights 50 to 100 miles off a state's coastline as long as a state affirmatively “opts in” by passing a state law. Waters beyond 100 miles would be open to federal leasing.

National marine monuments and sanctuaries would be permanently withdrawn from any leasing programs.

Party officials said they were confident that most Democrats would not abandon the party and support more aggressive Republican alternatives, which would allow drilling as close as within 12 miles of a state's coastline.