Congress blocks Bush energy proposals

Parts of President W. Bush’s new energy plan have already met with firm resistance in the Republican-controlled Congress, and from a federal judge in California who ruled out new oil drilling off the state’s coast.

The House of Representatives voted by 242 to 173 to prohibit new oil, gas and coal exploration in millions of acres of national monuments, by 247 to 164 to block oil and gas exploration off the coast of Florida, key parts of Bush’s policy of boosting domestic energy production contained in his recently-unveiled energy plan (see related story). In a separate move which could further harm the proposed plan, a District Court judge in Oakland has ruled out oil exploration in undeveloped tracts in federal waters off the California coast until the California Coastal Commission reviews the impact on water quality, marine life, air quality and scenic vistas. In Washington, federal deputies also voted 216 to 194 to prevent further review or alteration of tough Clinton administration restrictions on hardrock mining on government land.

When the proposed bills, which had the backing of the Bush Administration, go to the Democrat-controlled Senate they may face an even steeper challenge and coincided with a New York Times/CBS News poll of 1,000 people showing that only 39% approved of the president’s environmental policies and only 33% favoured his approach to the nation’s energy problems.

Forty-seven Republicans voted with Democrats to scrap amendments to the Department of the Interior’s spending bill proposing to allow new energy exploration in national monuments, following reports of significant reserves of coal, gas and oil in five monuments designated by President Clinton. Seventy Republicans broke ranks to side with the opposition to block final lease agreements between the Department of the Interior and energy companies wishing to develop a vast area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off the Florida coast. Opposition to the plan, contained in the Interior Department’s spending bill, had even come from the President’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

“Offshore oil and gas drilling is simply not compatible with Florida’s unique and fragile coastline,” commented Mark Ferrulo, Director of Florida’s division of the NGO Public Interest Research Group. “The message sent to the Bush administration could not be more clear – Florida’s beaches are a national treasure that should be protected not exploited. It’s not surprising that Representatives of both parties from states all across the nation whose constituents vacation and recreate on our beaches agree.”

In a further embarrassment, the House also defeated proposals for hardrock mining on federal lands which would reverse Clinton Administration rules that would require mining companies to pay for clean-up of their sites. The rules, which were four years in consultation, would also enable the federal government to prohibit new mine sites on sensitive federal land and prevent mining pollution, such as cyanide and arsenic, from contaminating rivers and streams.

“This clearly demonstrates that the majority of Congress, by a sizable margin, is environmentally sensitive and wants [the administration’s] policy to recognise that,” commented the Republican deputy Sherwood L. Boehlert. However, the Bush Administration said that the bills were all matters they were continuing to review and assured that the president’s priorities would be “reflected in the final legislation”.

Meanwhile, Judge Claudia Wilken has ruled that federal law allows California to decide whether drilling for vast untapped oil reserves of the coast is consistent with the state’s coastal protection law. State Governor Gray Davis, together with several environmental groups, filed a lawsuit two years ago to block development of 36 offshore oil leases which were leased between 1968 and 1984. Although both state and federal legislation prohibits new exploration, it does not apply not previously leased tracts, which the Department of the Interior recently decided to allow.

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