By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday pushed a trio of bills through a congressional committee that would boost U.S. offshore oil drilling and ease some regulations on oil companies.
Republicans said the bills would reverse the Obama administration energy policy of the last two years that they claimed has reduced domestic oil production and made the United States more reliant on foreign suppliers and vulnerable to oil price spikes.
"Congress must take action to increase energy production," said Representative Doc Hastings, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee that approved the three bills.
The legislative action comes as oil and gasoline prices are soaring and the Energy Department forecasts U.S. oil production in the Gulf of Mexico will decline by 190,000 barrels per day this year and in 2012.
Democrats countered that with the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill next week, now is not the time for Congress to open new areas to drilling and weaken offshore safety regulations.
"This legislative package reflects a pre-spill mentality of speed-over-safety," said Representative Edward Markey. "It would open up huge swaths of our coasts to drilling, without first applying any new safety standards learned from the BP disaster."
The legislation is likely to clear the full House of Representatives next month, but it probably will not find enough support in the U.S. Senate to pass. The White House would likely threaten a veto on the legislation as well.
The three bills would require the Interior Department to lease tracts in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Virginia coast, new areas the Obama administration delayed from development after the BP oil spill.
Leasing could also occur off most of the U.S. Atlantic Coast and the West Coast.
The department would have 60 days to review and decide whether an oil company's new drilling permit should be approved. Permits that were cleared before the White House imposed a drilling moratorium after the oil spill would be restarted within 30 days.
The legislation also commits the Obama administration to higher domestic oil and gas production, requiring the White House to boost offshore oil production to 3 million barrels a day and natural gas output at 10 billion cubic feet each day in the government's upcoming 2012-2017 offshore drilling plan.
Those production goals would have to be met by 2027, allowing companies 10 years to fully develop the offshore tracts they lease.
(Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by Gary Hill)