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Senators want offshore drilling on West Coast banned forever

WASHINGTON — Six West Coast senatorsinstroduced legislation Thursday that would ban permanently new oil-and-gas drilling off of the California, Oregon and Washington state coasts.

Citing the catastrophic blowout now fouling the Gulf of Mexico, the six Democratic lawmakers called for making permanent what has been a long-standing moratorium on new Outer Continental Shelf energy exploration and development along the West Coast.

"We simply cannot afford the risk posed by oil drilling off our magnificent coast," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said.

Boxer's Washington state colleague, Sen. Maria Cantwell, added that "it is simply unacceptable to risk irreparable harm to our coastal communities, economies and ecosystems just to feed our oil addiction with a short-term fix."

The bill is only the latest to be tossed into the congressional hopper since an April 20 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the Louisiana coast incited an ecological catastrophe. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil are now pouring daily into the gulf waters.

One bill introduced since April 20 would require oil polluters to pay the full cost of oil spills. Another would establish a non-partisan commission to investigate the Deepwater Horizon event. A third would establish new grants to assist communities hurt by the Gulf of Mexico, among other measures.

One bill, co-authored by Rep. John Garamandi, D-Calif., would impose a flat-out ban on all new Outer Continental Shelf oil-and-gas drilling nationwide.

A general moratorium on offshore drilling, imposed in 1982 and covering regions outside of the Gulf of Mexico, expired in 2008. President Barack Obama subsequently declared he would not permit new drilling along the West Coast, but lawmakers fear a new president would bring a new policy.

The all-out ban currently has only three House backers: one from California, one from Florida and one from New Jersey. The more limited Senate bill, which is confined to the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, has six co-sponsors.

Legislatively, the bills face uncertain prospects. Skeptics question the wisdom of permanently ruling out domestic oil production when the United States currently relies upon foreign countries for about 57 percent of its crude oil.

"It's time to end the delays, say no to the 'Obama Moratorium' and implement (plans) to expand offshore drilling," Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the senior Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in March.

A 2001 Interior Department study estimated there could be 2.35 trillion feet of natural gas buried off of the Washington and Oregon coasts. Studies estimate there could be 180 trillion feet of natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico and 15 trillion feet off of the California coast, in addition to some 10 billion barrels of oil off the California coast.

Fifty one percent of Californians polled in July 2009 supported expanding offshore drilling, while 43 percent opposed it, a survey by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California found.

One potential vehicle for any permanent offshore drilling ban would be a comprehensive energy bill, which Democrats have introduced but about which Republicans and even some oil-state Democrats remain skeptical.

Another potential legislative vehicle could be the Interior Department’s annual appropriations bill, which was used to impose previous year-to-year drilling moratoria. Boxer’s colleague, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairs the Senate subcommittee that provides Interior Department funding.

Politically, the anti-drilling bills stake out positions popular with some constituencies.

Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida, who is seeking a Senate seat, has introduced a related bill to suspend drilling until the Deepwater Horizon investigation is complete. Boxer is running for reelection this year in a state where opposition to offshore drilling first gained traction following a 1969 oil spill near Santa Barbara.

"The voters of California have voted that they don't want offshore oil drilling, and I don't want offshore drilling," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said.

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