A GOP bid to expand and hasten offshore oil drilling in the face of $4-a-gallon gasoline prices suffered an overwhelming defeat in the Senate on Wednesday, four days after President Barack Obama directed his administration to ramp up U.S. oil production.
Five Republicans joined 52 Democrats or independents in rejecting a bill written by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to speed up decision-making on drilling permits and force previously scheduled lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaska and Virginia coasts. The Obama administration suspended several lease sales after last year's massive BP oil spill.
The bill was supported by 42 Republicans, well short of the 60 needed to advance it. Several GOP senators complained that the bill gave too much ground to the Obama administration, including a provision that would require independent reviews of oil companies' plans for responding to major oil spills before they could get drilling permits.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said McConnell's bill did not go far enough to expand drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida and off the Pacific coast. He said it also "increases the burdens and requirements and hurdles of even the new Obama regulations that have been put in place since the BP disaster."
Vitter and fellow Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, also complained that the bill wouldn't direct royalties from offshore drilling to states where drilling occurs.
After the House passed similar legislation last week, Obama on Saturday directed the Interior Department to extend existing leases in the Gulf and off Alaska's coast and hold more frequent lease sales in a federal petroleum reserve in Alaska.
Both parties say that despite the BP spill, they want to allow responsible oil and gas drilling off the U.S. mainland and in Alaska. But they criticize each other's approach.
Democrats assailed the GOP bill as unnecessary and a giveaway to big oil companies, while Republicans said the measure would spur production that would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create thousands of jobs.
"Today's vote shows that `Drill Baby Drill' may be a catchy slogan, but it is not an energy policy," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is opposed to drilling off the Atlantic coast.
McConnell called the bill a "modest approach" that takes concerns of both parties into account to achieve a practical result. "By unlocking our own domestic resources, and speeding up the permitting process, our plan would actually do something to increase supply, putting downward pressure on price" at the pump, the Kentucky Republican said.
White House spokesman Clark Stevens said the Senate bill was unnecessary, noting that the Obama administration has already taken many of the steps advocated in the bill, including a one-year extension of leases in the Gulf of Mexico and certain areas of Alaska.
What remained in the GOP bill "would have undercut the important safety standards put in place following the largest oil spill in U.S. history," Stevens said. "These are the very standards that are allowing the administration to expand drilling safely, and industry has clearly demonstrated that they can meet them."
The Interior Department has issued 53 shallow-water permits since last June, when new safety standards were imposed, Stevens said. Permits for 14 deepwater wells have been approved since late February, when industry demonstrated it could meet new standards on containing oil spills.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said this week that Congress should change the law to allow leases onshore to be shorter than 10 years to pressure companies to drill sooner. Currently, 41 million acres of public lands are leased, but only 12 million acres are producing oil and natural gas, Salazar said.
Offshore, the Interior Department already has the ability to extend or shorten the length of a lease.