Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The Senate approved a resolution Saturday to continue funding the federal government through next spring, but the measure didn’t include any language on offshore drilling. This means that as of the stroke of midnight tomorrow, the moratorium currently barring drilling in the outer continental shelf that has been in place for 26 years will evaporate. There will also be no further moratorium on oil shale production in the West.

The Senate passed the resolution by a vote of 78 to 12. The House had passed the measure on Wednesday by a vote of 370-58. While an earlier draft of the House version would have imposed some restrictions on offshore drilling, they didn’t make it into the final version of the bill. The appropriations package will keep the government running through March 6 of next year; in effect, Congress is postponing budget decisions until a new president is sworn in.

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As for offshore drilling, it will likely be years before any actual development in these areas would begin, as the Department of the Interior would first need to set rules on how to proceed. There probably wouldn’t be an actual lease sale for at least two years, and only after that could exploration even begin. The lag time essentially means that the next president and the next Congress will have to make decisions about what happens in theses areas, which opponents of offshore-drilling are hoping will work out in their favor.

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“We’ve got plenty of time to work through that,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told The Washington Post over the weekend.

Democrats say they are hopeful that they’ll be able to renew the drilling moratorium next year. In the meantime, advances toward production will probably get caught up in legal wrangling, as environmental groups sue to keep fragile areas protected.

Republicans, meanwhile, are overjoyed that in the end, they got what they’ve been asking for all summer, if only by default. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hailed the lack of protections as evidence of bipartisan agreement on drilling. “Not only is Congress tackling the problem of rising energy prices head on by encouraging domestic energy development, we are doing so by working together,” he said.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto also praised the end of the drilling ban, which President Bush has been calling for all summer.

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“One benefit of this broken process is the agreement to discontinue the moratoria on exploration and drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf and allowing access to western oil shale reserves,” he said in a statement. “Ending these moratoria puts the United States one step closer to ending our dependence on foreign sources of energy.”

The House passed a bill putting in place at least some restrictions on drilling and oil shale development, but with Congress tied up by a financial crisis and the Senate largely unable to come to any agreement on an energy package, the bill stalled there.