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House Votes to Block Offshore Oil Drilling Along U.S. Coasts

Jennifer A. Dlouhy

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to block new offshore drilling in U.S. Atlantic and Pacific waters as well as territory near Florida’s Gulf Coast that is prized by oil companies.

The bills passed by the House Wednesday are doomed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but their approval underscored significant bipartisan opposition to the Trump administration’s plans to expand coastal oil and gas development.

The votes were part of a broader Democratic effort to challenge the administration’s oil drilling plans. The House is set to vote Thursday on legislation that would block oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, effectively reversing Congress’ decision to require leasing in its coastal plain as part of the 2017 tax overhaul.

One of the bills (H.R. 205) voted on Wednesday, which passed 248-180, would permanently extend an existing ban on oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The measure, which drew support from 22 Republicans, would effectively bar drilling in federal waters up to 125 miles off Florida’s west coast -- including territory oil companies consider attractive because of a series of promising nearby discoveries. The existing moratorium is otherwise set to expire June 30, 2022.

Florida lawmakers and drilling foes said the protection is necessary to safeguard some $37.4 billion in economic activity and more than 600,000 jobs tied to fishing, tourism and recreation in the state.

Representative Francis Rooney, a Republican from Florida, said offshore drilling poses an “existential threat” to the state’s west coast -- even when spills don’t touch its shores. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, Florida vacations and fishing ventures were canceled “despite the fact that there was no impact to our coastline,” Rooney said. “Perception became reality.”

The other measure (H.R. 1941), which passed 238-189, would put a permanent moratorium on oil and gas leasing in U.S. Atlantic and Pacific waters, effectively restoring prohibitions that existed before a spike in crude prices helped prompt their withdrawal in 2008.

The Interior Department has paused work to develop a new plan for selling offshore drilling rights from 2019 through 2024, after initially opening the door to auctioning tracts in more than 90% of U.S. coastal waters. However, Democrats said that is only a temporary reprieve and argued a permanent blockade is necessary to keep drilling rigs away from America’s shores. And they argued that new offshore oil drilling isn’t compatible with an urgent need to counter climate change by shifting away from fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gas emissions.

An oil spill would devastate coastal communities whose fortunes are tied to ocean-based recreation, fishing and tourism, with potential economic losses dwarfing any job and industry gains tied to drilling, said Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey.

Republicans countered that the bills prevent the U.S. from safely harnessing its own energy resources, squandering potential job and economic gains tied to offshore oil and gas development. Banning new oil and gas leasing in some U.S. waters also could act to encourage more drilling in others, the White House said in a formal statement of opposition.

And the restrictions could deepen the U.S. reliance on foreign crude imports, said Representative Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana. The proposed bans “would have no impact on reducing demand for fossil fuels,” Johnson said. “We’d simply have to import more from our adversaries.”

(Updates with House votes and debate, from first paragraph.)

--With assistance from Erik Wasson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at jdlouhy1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net, Elizabeth Wasserman

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