The House voted Tuesday to lift the 26-year ban on energy exploration off the Atlantic coast and other federal waters, but drilling advocates dismissed the bill as a sham designed to give political cover to their opponents without offering any incentive for states like North Carolina to allow it.
It was a bit like “backwards day” in Congress, with longtime opponents of offshore drilling voting to allow it and declared advocates opposing it.
The measure passed in a largely party-line vote of 236-189. It now goes to the Senate, where energy will be the topic later in the week.
The bill rolls back tax breaks for big oil companies, provides tax incentives for using alternative energy and promotes conservation. But the main focus is drilling, both the question of its place in the nation's energy future and its political consequences.
The bill passed Tuesday would allow drilling only 50 miles or more off shore.
States would have to “opt in” to allow drilling for oil and natural gas between 50 and 100 miles from their shores. No permission would be needed to drill outside 100 miles, though drilling that far out is seen by some as implausible.
Republicans labeled the bill a sham because most of the estimated 18 billion barrels of oil thought to lie below coastal waters are within 50 miles will remain out of bounds.
Another point of contention was revenue or profit-sharing for states that allow drilling – there isn't any in the bill. Texas and Louisiana get 37.5 percent of revenues.
Critics said states wouldn't bother to allow drilling if they don't get a cut.
“The Democrats want to appear to support drilling while rigging the legislation to ensure no drilling actually occurs,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from Cherryville.
The majority, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said they couldn't dictate that states share the profits because of a ruling by the Congressional Budget Office that would in effect require Congress to offset the future money paid to states with budget cuts.
“It is insane,” acknowledged Rep. Mel Watt, a Charlotte Democrat who opposes drilling but supported the bill.
“I know how that's going to be postured in the press and in the public mind … But the more compelling reason we did it was because we would have had to find a way to pay for those revenues. It makes no sense.”
Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, said the bill doesn't help North Carolina “at all.” The Associated Press contributed.