Vitter amendment would ramp up offshore drilling

03 06, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is pushing an amendment to a transportation spending bill that would dramatically increase offshore oil and gas development. But it remains to be seen whether he'll get a vote on his plan, which like similar proposals by House Republicans is opposed by major environmental groups.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is trying to get an agreement with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to reduce the 200-plus amendments proposed for the Transportation Bill to five from each party.

An aide familiar with the negotiations said McConnell has been expressing support for the Vitter measure, which would extend drilling off the Virginia, California and Florida coasts as well as Bristol Bay and Cook Outlet in Alaska.

The list of amendments includes a proposal by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., which would add the RESTORE Act, a measure designating 80 percent of any BP Clean Water Act fines and penalties to the five Gulf States.

Landrieu aides said she and her staff were still pushing Monday night for the measure to be included on the final list of amendments slated to get Senate votes. The House included some components of the RESTORE Act in its transportation bill.

The Senate has already rejected a proposal by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have allowed employers such as Catholic colleges and charities to choose not to provide health coverage for which they have moral objections -- an effort to block an Obama administration mandate that health insurance plans include birth control.

Reid said he hopes to announce an agreement on which amendments will get votes on Tuesday. Otherwise, Reid has said he'll seek a vote to limit debate so the Senate can vote on a $109 billion transportation bill before the current funding program expires at the end of the month.

House Republicans added a provision to its now-stalled transportation bill that would require additional leases across the Outer Continental Shelf, including off Florida and California, where there's strong opposition from state and local leaders of both political parties.

Vitter's proposal differs in strategy. It would put into effect a five-year drilling plan announced by President George W. Bush's administration in 2008 that would have allowed lease sales throughout the Outer Continental Shelf, including off the Florida, California and Virginia coasts.

The Obama administration threw out the Bush plan, and has kept leasing off-limits for the Virginia, Florida and California coasts.

Environmentalists object to the Vitter plan, saying that key members of the Bush administration said their plan was designed to give the Obama administration maximum flexibility and that more environmental study was needed before expanded leasing began.

Vitter's amendment says the Bush administration's five-year leasing plan should be considered as having "issued a final environmental impact statement for the oil and gas leasing programs."

"The administration threw out the previous five-year plan and their new plan eliminates vast resources that should be available to our nation's energy producers," Vitter said. "Limiting Gulf of Mexico access as well as access on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts just perpetuates this administration's attempts to shut down offshore energy production."

Vitter said his plan takes the Obama administration at its word that it has tightened regulation of offshore drilling sufficiently after the massive 2010 BP oil spill.

Environmentalists called the Vitter plan irresponsible.

"By mandating this draft program be implemented, Sen. Vitter's amendment would not only drastically increase drilling off of all of our coasts, it would mandate drilling with absolutely zero consideration of environmental safeguards for our coasts and the communities who depend on healthy and clean oceans," said Regan Nelson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.