Nearly 40 years after some 80,000 barrels of oil washed up on the beaches of Santa Barbara and launched a move to ban offshore drilling Congress is heading toward a vote to end that moratorium.
For a generation of Democratic politicians, the notion of opening protected sites to drilling was toxic. But with soaring gas prices, public opinion is shifting toward anything that promises relief at the pump and congressional politics is moving with it.
In a shift on Saturday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the House will take up comprehensive energy legislation next month that includes partially lifting the 1981 ban on offshore drilling.
"It will consider opening portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling, with appropriate safeguards, and without taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil," she said in the weekly Democratic radio address on Saturday.
On Friday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said that the Senate will also examine lifting the ban, which now covers all but central and western portions of the Gulf of Mexico and some parts of Alaska.
Until Saturday, Speaker Pelosi called the notion that more drilling would lower prices at the pump a hoax and said that there would be no votes on this issue on her watch.
Their solution: increase conservation and alternative fuel sources, tax Big Oil for its record 'windfall profits,' rein in speculation in the commodities market, and end billions in tax subsidies for oil companies now written into the tax code.
Before opening any new sites for exploration and drilling, Big Oil should first prove that it has used available leases on some 68 million acres, Democrats said.
After President Bush lifted the executive moratorium on offshore drilling last month, Republicans called on the majority to allow votes to lift the congressional ban, as well.
Senate Republicans, citing support from constituents worried about energy costs, reduced their legislative agenda to a single item: increase domestic energy supply. In a bid to force an offshore drilling vote, GOP senators blocked votes on all other elements of an energy plan, including a popular measure to extend tax breaks for renewable energy. Both houses broke for August recess without a vote on offshore drilling.
On the House side, Republicans have held nearly daily protests on the floor of the House during the August recess to force Pelosi to allow a vote to lift the congressional moratorium on offshore drilling.
Since Aug. 1, 109 Republicans have returned to Washington to argue the case for offshore drilling on the floor of an adjourned House.
"Our members are finding at home that what we¹re doing here in Washington is appreciated," said Rep. Roy Blunt, the House Republican whip, at a press briefing off the floor of the House on Thursday. "At least somebody is willing to fight for the No. 1 issue for their families today and that's gas prices, soon to be followed by energy prices, as we get to the fall."
Meanwhile, Democrats are gearing up for major energy legislation when Congress returns next month. On Tuesday, Senator Reid is convening a national clean energy summit in Las Vegas. He is calling on Republicans to support a bipartisan summit and comprehensive energy legislation when the Senate reconvenes.
The broader energy bill to be debated on the floor of the House covers conservation as well as new investments in alternative fuels. The plan mandates the release of some 700 million barrels of oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to "reduce the price at the pump within 10 days,"Pelosi said on Saturday.
The plan also requires oil companies to pay the billions of dollars in royalties to be invested in clean energy resources and aims to rein in speculation in energy markets, viewed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as a factor in the run-up of gas prices.
In response, House Republican leaders called on the speaker to immediately reconvene the House to vote on a GOP bill to 'drill here, drill now, and pay less.'
"While the Speaker now claims to embrace a comprehensive energy plan that includes more conservation, more innovation, and more American energy production, the fact is her new effort appears to be just another flawed plan that will do little to lower gas prices," House Republican leader John Boehner said in a statement.
Even if proposed legislation on both sides of the aisle derails, Republicans are gearing up for one more flash point: On Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, the moratorium on drilling automatically lapses, unless Congress renews it.
Some Republicans are urging President Bush to veto any spending bill or any continuing resolution to extend spending bills into the new Congress that includes a renewal of the offshore drilling ban.