Nov 15 2006

Last chance to fight high energy prices

Mobile Press Register


THE OUTGOING Republican majority in Congress has one last chance to present a fine farewell gift to hard-pressed energy consumers.

One of the key items on the agenda of the lame-duck session of Congress is legislation that would expand offshore oil and natural gas drilling. In the pre-election session, the House passed a bill that would allow drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as the Gulf of Mexico, while the Senate passed a more modest measure that would open up 8.3 million acres in the Gulf for oil and gas exploration.

Republicans in the Senate, including Alabama's senators, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, worked diligently to produce a filibuster-proof compromise on drilling. But their efforts to break a quarter-century political deadlock on offshore energy production were thwarted when House GOP leaders refused to consider the Senate version of the bill.

If the Senate bill becomes law, Alabama and the three other Gulf states (Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) that already allow drilling in their coastal waters stand to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties. Alabama would have a reliable revenue source to pay for hurricane protection, coastal conservation and other measures that would directly benefit Mobile and Baldwin counties.

The House bill has an even sweeter deal for the states on royalties; unfortunately, however, the House proposal has a zero chance of ever becoming law. Florida's senators and Senate Democrats simply won't accept a broad drilling bill.

A pre-election deal on increasing oil and natural gas production might have helped the majority party appeal to voters fed up with high gasoline and natural gas prices. But pro-drilling militants in the House opted to cut off their noses to spite their faces.

The lame-duck session gives the Republicans a final opportunity to deliver on their promises to boost the nation's energy production. When the Democrats take charge in January, the environmental lobby will call the shots in Washington on energy issues. That means no new drilling, period.

With winter rapidly approaching, consumers soon will be reminded that natural gas prices in the United States are the highest in the industrialized world. It's no coincidence that the United States also is the only industrialized country that puts a large percentage of its natural gas reserves off-limits to production.

There's still time for the GOP-led Congress to authorize tapping the huge natural gas fields in the central and eastern Gulf. But House leaders must drop their ambitious plan and settle for the politically viable Senate version.

It's a lame-duck session, but Republicans leaders don't have to act like lame ducks.