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US Congress Re-Considers Offshore Drilling for Oil

The United States House of Representatives has passed a controversial measure designed to lift a 25-year ban on oil drilling in U.S. coastal areas. As VOA's Mil Arcega reports, environmental concerns about the practice mean the bill may still have a tough road to travel in the U.S. Senate.

California's Santa Monica Bay is one of the nation's most scenic and ecologically sensitive areas. But valuable deposits of oil lie below its surface. In June the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end a 25-year ban on drilling off the nation's coasts.

David Beckmann, with the Natural Resources Defense Council says the reversal will be global.

"It reverses 25 years of protection not only for California's ocean environment but for the oceans across the country," he says. "And it authorizes offshore drilling, changing the game."

A 1969 oil spill at a platform 10 kilometers off California's coast led to a wave of opposition against offshore drilling. Since then, California lawmakers have fought to keep that from ever happening again.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called the House bill unacceptable, and is pushing for alternatives to drilling.

"No plan would be complete without a strong commitment to conservation," he said. "Energy efficiency is our most cost effective resource for meeting our needs."

California's tourism industry generates more than $50 billion a year. Opponents of drilling believe another accident could be disastrous to businesses that depend on tourism. But energy industry experts argue that the chances of another spill are highly unlikely, and that U.S. dependence on overseas sources of petroleum comes with its own risks of shortages and higher prices.

"Well, what's happening at this point is that China keeps growing very fast and expanding its demand for oil and gas and that's putting a floor under U.S. gasoline and oil prices," said Mike Mandel, Chief Economist at Businessweek magazine. "Combine that with problems in the Mideast and the turmoil and the possibility of hurricanes going through the Gulf of Mexico and you see the reasons why the price of oil and gasoline keeps rising and rising."

The House bill would allow states to keep banning offshore drilling out to 160 kilometers - but there would be no restrictions on drilling beyond that. The proposal will now be considered in the U.S. Senate, where it faces determined opposition from representative of coastal states from both political parties.