Getting to 'yes' on more offshore drilling? Not yet.

Congress is set to consider several energy bills this week, but hopes dim for passage of any of them.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Imported rig: A metal hull arrived in Texas in June, shipped from Finland. It's part of a new deep-water offshore drilling facility.
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To get to "yes" on sweeping new energy legislation, US lawmakers this week will first have to neutralize "poison pills" that both sides acknowledge could yet scuttle passage of any bill. Foremost among these are big caveats top Democrats want in return for relaxing a decades-old moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling in most US waters, including rolling back $17 billion in tax breaks for Big Oil and cutting states out of any royalties from new lease sales off their coasts.

Democrats see their proposal as a compromise, a way to expand offshore production in an environmentally responsible way. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid both said they would allow votes on proposals to expand oil and gas drilling off the coasts of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. That represents a shift for Speaker Pelosi, who in the summer vowed to block a vote on lifting the offshore-drilling ban.

Republicans, though, see the proposed caveats as undermining their aim to drill as much oil as fast as possible. "Drill, baby, drill" emerged as a GOP rallying cry at their party's national convention earlier this month.

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House Democrats are expected to release details of their comprehensive energy proposal this week. The bill is expected to give states the option of permitting drilling at least 50 miles off their shores. Even when states refuse consent, Washington could authorize drilling at least 100 miles offshore.

Commenting on an outline of the plan, House Republicans say it's a nonstarter: It permanently locks up 88 percent of potential national resources offshore, and it doesn't give coastal states any financial incentive to back expanded drilling, they say.

"This may turn out to be just words," Rep. Thelma Drake (R) of Virginia said in the House Republican Conference radio address this weekend. "The speaker's proposal would create an economic double standard, giving states like Virginia, who would like to produce offshore, zero incentive to do so."

Moreover, the probable 100-mile limit would put most of the Pacific coastline off limits to drilling – another sticking point, Republicans say.

"Another sign that this is not a serious attempt to get a bill signed into law is that there has been no bipartisanship, no effort to get Republican input whatsoever," says Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner.

Those who prefer the Democratic approach see it differently.

"Congressional conservatives won't take 'yes' for an answer on offshore drilling, because it doesn't help their Big Oil patrons," says Daniel Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate policy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that advises Democratic policymakers.

With gasoline prices rising again in the wake of hurricane Ike, Congress is likely to feel additional public pressure to act. Polls show public opinion has shifted in favor of lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling.

On the Senate side, a bipartisan coalition of 10 senators, led by Sens. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota and Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, produced a "New Era" energy plan, which includes expansion of offshore drilling. The plan also aims to move some 85 percent of America's cars and trucks to alternative fuels in the next 20 years.

In recent weeks, this so-called Gang of 10 gained sponsors and now stands as the Gang of 22, Senator Reid said at a bipartisan energy summit on Friday.

"We have seen two diverging trends in the energy debate – one very encouraging, one less helpful," he said. "On one side, as the fall [election] campaign heats up, we have seen energy move into a more partisan realm, with candidates looking to score points with sound bites that solve nothing. But on the other side, we are seeing an increasing consensus that when all the political dust settles, our energy challenges cannot fall victim to partisan bickering."

The Senate is also expected to take up a proposal, released after the Monitor's deadline on Monday, of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Unlike many committees in a highly partisan Congress, the Senate energy panel has typically worked in a bipartisan way, producing three bills signed into law in the past three years.

But GOP members on the panel say it's too late in the 110th Congress to move another bill this fall. "This meeting should be a conference to hammer out the final details of a bill, not a summit to build consensus for a measure that has yet to be drafted," Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, the top Republican on the energy panel, said Friday.

In the end, the energy votes could wind up as little more than an exercise in political cover – producing tough votes for Republicans voting against the bill and cover for conservative Democrats who want to vote for expanded drilling. Either way, the energy votes play straight into campaign ads for fall elections.

Meanwhile, there is bipartisan support for extending tax breaks for renewable energy programs – a proposal the Senate is likely to take up this week. "Transforming our economy from one based on fossil fuels to one based on clean energy ... will require investments in the range of $45 [trillion] to $50 trillion," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico.

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