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Senate Bill to Expand Offshore Drilling Falls Short

  • Cindy Saine

Sen. John Barrasso [C] quotes a USA Today article about gas prices as he and Sen. Lamar Alexander [L] and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell [R] speak to reporters, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2011

Sen. John Barrasso [C] quotes a USA Today article about gas prices as he and Sen. Lamar Alexander [L] and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell [R] speak to reporters, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2011

The U.S. Senate has failed to pass a bill that would have opened up more areas to offshore oil drilling and forced government regulators to speed up their decisions on oil drilling permits. The vote was 57 against the bill, and 42 in favor - 18 short of the needed 60 'yes' votes to advance to the Senate floor. Lawmakers realize that their constituents are upset about high gasoline prices, but disagree on what course of action to take.

With opinion polls showing that more than 80 percent of Americans are worried about high gasoline prices, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are bringing up different kinds of approaches to deal with the problem. On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled Senate defeated a bill sponsored by Republicans to expand offshore oil drilling.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi explains what the bill would have done. "This bill would require proposed lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, in the mid-Atlantic and those off of Alaska to be completed. It would cut bureaucratic red tape, while speeding up the approval of drilling permits and energy activity suspended during the administration's moratorium on offshore oil drilling would be extended by one year," said Wicker.

Most Democratic lawmakers voted against the bill, saying it would fail to lower gasoline prices and that it ignores safety lessons learned from last year's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil spill in history. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez objected to provisions that would have set a 60-day deadline for government regulators to decide on drilling permits, and on proposed drilling off the coast of Virginia.

"Haven't we learned anything from the tragic death of 11 men aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig a little over a year ago? Haven't we learned anything about the families that lost their livelihoods and the Gulf economy that will take decades to finally rebuild?" he asked.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois also opposed the measure, quoting an election campaign slogan used by Republican Senator John McCain in his unsuccessful run for the White House in 2008.

"So the Republican answer is 'Drill, baby drill?!' Honestly that is not going to solve the problem, and it is going to invite some dangerous activities, which we should know better than to engage in," he said.

For their part, Republican senators defeated a Democratic-sponsored vote Tuesday that would have ended tax incentives for the five largest oil companies. Democrats say with the high price of gasoline, subsidies for oil companies are unnecessary because they are already making huge profits. Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of pushing the measure for political purposes to stir up anger against oil companies.

"They pushed a tax on energy because evidently some of their leaders think it polls well," said McConnell. "Well, so does Mother's Day. I would suggest that Democrats spend a little more time looking at the price of gas at their local gas stations, than at the latest polling numbers about class warfare rhetoric."

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are likely paying attention to opinion polls on gas prices. A Politico/George Washington University poll released Monday found that 28 percent of respondents blamed oil and gas companies for the surge in gas prices. 22 percent of those asked blamed oil-exporting countries, and only 12 percent blamed President Obama and his administration.

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