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Broad ban on drilling won’t stand

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WASHINGTON — House Democrats have no interest in restoring the broad ban on oil and gas development off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts but will seek to "delineate areas available for drilling" when Congress returns next year, the second-ranking Democrat in the House said Tuesday.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland made clear in remarks at the National Press Club that some limits on offshore drilling will be pursued.

Congress in October ended a quarter-century ban on drilling in 85 percent of the nation's offshore federal waters from New England to the Pacific Northwest.

"Nobody is suggesting that we return to the same position (of an across-the-board ban)," said Hoyer, saying that no proposals are being made to reinstate the 26-year-old ban on drilling in Atlantic and Pacific federal waters.

But Hoyer said that "there will be real discussion on the parameters on which drilling will be pursued."

President-elect Barack Obama has said he would support some limited expansion of offshore oil and natural gas development if states adjacent to that offshore drilling approve and if it is part of a broader energy plan aimed at moving the country toward greater use of alternative, nonfossil energy sources and greater efficiency.

Currently, virtually all Outer Continental Shelf drilling occurs in the central and western Gulf of Mexico.

While the broad drilling bans, which were first enacted by Congress in 1981, may be history, lawmakers must still work out details about such issues as revenue sharing with states and whether some environmentally or economically sensitive areas should be protected from energy companies.

Without a system of sharing federal royalties with states, it is unlikely many states — if any — would endorse drilling off their coasts.

In September, the House passed legislation to allow offshore drilling along the full length of both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but preserved a 50-mile wide coastal buffer that remained off limits. The bill died in the Senate.

However, the broad drilling ban was allowed to expire in October. The Interior Department estimates those waters contain at least 18 billion barrels of oil, about half of it off the California coast.

"I think there will be efforts to look at further ways to delineate areas available for drilling," said Hoyer.

Hoyer declined to say when the House might take up legislation to deal with climate change, although he said "there is a consensus" among Democrats and with the incoming Obama administration "that we must address that issue ... in a decisive and effective way ... " to substantially cut heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

"We will work with the president-elect, Obama, when he becomes president, to determine the timing," said Hoyer.