Offshore drilling is the new ANWR.

With the fight to pry open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge having stalled out (at least for the time being), the oil and gas industry and its cronies in Congress are now focused on parts of the outer continental shelf (OCS) that have been off-limits to drilling for nearly 25 years. Escalating energy prices and the ever-louder drum beat for energy independence are helping drilling proponents make their case.

Coastal states are in a drill pickle.

Photo: iStockphoto.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have released a battery of initiatives in recent weeks that would green-light new offshore oil and natural-gas drilling projects on the OCS, which extends off the U.S. coastline from three to 200 miles. The Bush administration and some state lawmakers are lending a hand, too.

“We estimate that the OCS could harbor enough natural gas to meet the needs of the nation’s homes, businesses, industries, and power plants for three decades,” says Peggy Laramie, spokesperson for the American Gas Association, a natural-gas industry trade group. And it contains enough potential oil reserves to meet current demand for at least a decade, according to data from the American Petroleum Institute. But at the moment, 85 percent of that oil and gas supply is unreachable because of drilling restrictions, says Laramie.

“The restrictions are simply unconscionable at a time of so much price volatility, when people are losing their homes and jobs, home heating bills are through the roof, and manufacturing facilities are shutting down due to high energy prices,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Environmental advocates and lawmakers from Florida, California, and other coastal states who want drills nowhere near their tourist-attracting beaches don’t quite see it that way. They’re scrambling to fight back, but it’ll be an uphill battle.

Pro-drilling forces are “more aggressive than ever,” says Melinda Pierce, offshore drilling specialist for the Sierra Club. “I have never seen the kind of multi-directional assaults on OCS protections that we’re seeing today.”

Adds Richard Charter, co-chair of the National OCS Coalition, which seeks continued protection from offshore drilling, “Coastal treasures like Maine’s Acadia National Park, California’s Mendocino Coast and Santa Monica Bay, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks are now more vulnerable to fossil-fuel development than they have been in decades.”

Moratorium Power to You

There are currently two layers of federal protection that prevent drilling on many portions of the OCS. The first is a moratorium that’s been renewed annually by Congress, with bipartisan support, since 1981. A measure to renew it this year is expected to be introduced in May. The second is a presidential directive originally issued by Dubya’s dad in 1990, then extended by Clinton to last through 2012. George Jr. could undo this directive with the stroke of a pen, but has made no move to do so — thus far.

That may change soon, though. Last month, Bush’s Interior Department announced a draft five-year offshore drilling plan that proposes opening up at least 2 million new acres in the Gulf of Mexico, plus tracts in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and off the coast of Virginia that are currently off-limits.

“The Interior plan clearly anticipates that both the congressional moratorium and presidential protection will soon be lifted,” says Charter.

The proposal is open to public comment through April 10. If ultimately adopted, it would go into effect in 2007.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), though, doesn’t want to wait that long. He introduced a bill a month ago that would open up about 3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas development, essentially putting into effect the first stage of the Bush administration’s five-year plan. The legislation, cosponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), could get a vote as soon as next week in the Senate Energy Committee, which Domenici chairs.

Says Pierce of the Sierra Club, “What concerns us most is that once one area is exempted from protections, there will be a domino effect, and the whole OCS safeguard mechanism falls apart.”

Another bill that would open new lease areas in the Gulf of Mexico was introduced on Feb. 15 by Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Their measure would also let governors individually petition the feds to waive the offshore drilling ban in waters off their coasts.

The Warner-Pryor bill is modeled after the Ocean States Options Act being pushed by House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), which likewise would let governors ask for a waiver from drilling moratoriums. “Chances are good that we can get this passed,” Pombo told The Washington Post last week.

Eternal Sunshine State of the Spotless Mind

This sudden raft of legislation has the senators from Florida and California very nervous.

On Feb. 1, Florida Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and Mel Martinez (R) made a “preemptive strike,” as Nelson aide Bridget Walsh describes it, in the form of a bill that would open up a segment of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to new drilling while putting in place more rigid anti-drilling protections for the rest of the OCS around Florida. “We knew what Interior and Domenici and Pombo were up to,” Walsh told Muckraker, “so we devised a compromise proposal to head off these threats, offering permanent protection for Florida’s coasts and broader safeguards for the rest of the moratorium areas.”

Similarly, California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and one representative, Lois Capps (D), introduced bills on Feb. 16 that would permanently block new drilling off the coast of their state.

In the midst of all this, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has found himself in a pickle — torn between the pro-environment demands of his constituency and Florida’s tourist-based economy, and the formidable industry interests that drive the Republican machine. Last fall, he worked with Pombo on proposed legislation that would give states power over decisions on OCS drilling off their coasts, but compromises in that bill gave the jitters to many Floridians, including much of the state’s congressional delegation. Since then, Jeb has laid low on the matter and issued vague words of support for the Nelson-Martinez proposal.

His brother would seem to be conflicted as well. Only a month ago, President Bush declared that the time had come to break America’s addiction to oil. Now, Bush and his buddies are scrounging around for their next fix.