WASHINGTON — A year after the BP oil spill put the brakes on full-bore domestic production, it's back to "drill, baby, drill" as federal lawmakers, anxious about rising gasoline prices, push legislation to open offshore leases and make it easier to drill domestically.
Nowhere is this emphasis on increasing domestic production louder than in the Gulf Coast states hit hard by the oil spill — Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — where the calls for drilling from members of both parties are louder than last year's calls for caution as oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.
"Louisiana is home to the nation's oil and gas industry that is trying to get back to work after the Deepwater Horizon accident," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. The Pelican State lawmaker, one of the Gulf Coast's few Democrats, is critical of the drilling moratorium imposed by the Obama administration after the spill, as well as its slow restarting of the oil well permitting process on the Outer Continental Shelf.
"We need to rapidly accelerate the permitting process in the Gulf to increase production," she said, as well as expanding it to offshore Alaska and other areas.
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Last April 20, the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, killing 11 men and injuring 17. The rig's blowout preventer failed, sending oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months, causing widespread economic and environmental damage. The leak was stopped on July 15, after more than 4.9 million barrels of crude oil contaminated the Gulf. The wellhead was permanently sealed on Sept. 19.
BP initially underestimated the size of the spill. Tony Hayward, then BP's chief executive, downplayed its impact without much challenge from the Obama administration, which coordinated the response to the spill with the oil company.
Still, Gulf Coast lawmakers say, it's time to get back into the oil business. Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would give leaseholders an additional year to make up for production lost during the moratorium.
"At the one-year anniversary mark, I believe progress has been made to clean up after the spill and to begin rebuilding the economy along the coast," said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. "I will continue to support legislation to ensure that Gulf energy exploration, and the jobs associated with that industry, are not unjustifiably obstructed by the federal bureaucracy."
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday indicates that 69 percent of Americans favor increased offshore drilling. That's up 20 percentage points from last June, while the oil spill was still in progress, and is back to the level of support seen in the summer of 2008.
In the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, the Natural Resources Committee last week approved three bills that would force the Interior Department to speed up permits, open leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Virginia coast, set a domestic production goal and, as Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said, "end the administration's de facto moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico."
The House is expected to vote on the bills, which includes the one-year extension for leaseholders, when Congress returns from its spring break.
The reason for the push: instability in the Middle East and $4-a-gallon gasoline in several states, with the national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded at $3.83 a gallon. Crude oil reached a high of $112 a barrel on April 8, with the Energy Information Administration warning that "crude oil prices are currently at their highest level since 2008."
Environmental activists are alarmed at what they say are short memories by lawmakers on the dangers of offshore drilling.
"We are seeing the chronic effects of the oil spill with 65 (baby) dolphins washing up on the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida," said Louie Miller, head of the Sierra Club in Mississippi, who added that there have also been 87 dead sea turtles since March 15. "Our concerns are that we haven't recovered from the first disaster."
Tyson Slocum, the director of energy programs for Public Citizen, the grassroots organization founded by Ralph Nader, said, "People tend to forget that the industry screwed this up. BP cut corners." All the legislation moving to open up drilling, he said, is going in the wrong direction. "It's crazy that Congress has not passed reform in response to the largest environmental accident in our history."
But lawmakers from oil-producing states — who are getting an earful from constituents — say drilling has to be part of a comprehensive national energy strategy.
"The lack of a coherent energy policy is one of the drivers that clearly leaves us vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas. "We feel it, especially in Texas." And drilling, he said, has to be a part of that policy. "We're fooling ourselves if we think we're beyond that point."
Democratic lawmakers from other regions are urging the tapping of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — the federal government's oil storage tank — to help increase supply and lower prices, and encouraging the administration to promote alternative fuels.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is pushing for releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But President Barack Obama cautioned in a television interview Friday that the U.S. should be "very careful" about going that route. "The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was designed for when oil actually shuts off," Obama told ABC.
Oil industry supporters in Congress say that the U.S. has to drill.
"The longer this administration chooses to delay on issuing permits," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, "the longer they endanger jobs for thousands of America's Gulf Coast workers."
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