US lawmakers vote to end 26-year ban on offshore drilling

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US lawmakers Tuesday sought to overturn a decades-old ban on offshore drilling voting in favor of a new energy bill which has been spurred by spiralling oil prices.

The new bill, which was put forward by the majority Democrats in the House of Representatives, was approved by 236 votes to 189.

It would allow drilling off the US coastline up to a distance of between 50 to 100 miles (80 to 160 kilometers) overturning a 1981 federal moratorium.

Under the ban, states had been prohibited from allowing offshore oil and gas drilling and exploration, protecting virtually the entire Atlantic and Pacific coastlines and sections of the Gulf of Mexico.

As global fuel prices rocketed earlier this year, US President George W. Bush had lifted the drilling ban in July, urging lawmakers to swing behind him in the country’s search for energy independence.

The bill is now due to go before the Senate, probably by next week. But it will have to win the support of at least 60 out of the 100 senators in order to be passed, which is unlikely given the lack of Republican support.

The bill says it aims: “To advance the national security interests of the United States by reducing its dependency on oil through renewable and clean, alternative fuel technologies.”

It hopes to build “a bridge to the future through expanded access to federal oil and natural gas resources, revising the relationship between the oil and gas industry and the consumers who own those resources.”

But it triggered a lively debate in the House with Republicans criticizing the bill for failing to support moves to develop nuclear energy.

“Nobody’s read the bill,” said House minority Republican leader, John Boehner.

“And guess what? The Republican members who represent about 48 percent of the American people, we’re not allowed to offer a substitute.

“We have no opportunity to offer our American energy plan that we’ve been on this floor talking about for three months nonstop.”

The offshore drilling plan has become a hotly contested issue on the campaign trail in the 2008 White House race.

Amid falling demand and turmoil in the financial markets, oil prices on Tuesday tumbled to around 90 dollars a barrel, a seven-month low, after they reached historic highs earlier this year of around 145 dollars a barrel.

But experts say any new drilling will only start to impact on gas prices in 10 to 15 years.

And critics argue that lifting the drilling moratorium would jeopardize the environment and that production would take years to get up and running, and thus is not a realistic answer to the current crisis.

Bush in June cited the US dramatic shift to dependence on oil imports in recent decades as an economic and security risk.

“Some of that energy comes from unstable regions and unfriendly regimes. This makes us more vulnerable to supply shocks and price spikes beyond our control, and that puts both our economy and our security at risk,” he said.

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