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Domenici Led Push to Drill In Gulf

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
    WASHINGTON— Congress agreed to open millions of acres of Gulf of Mexico waters to oil and gas drilling before it adjourned for the year early Saturday with an aggressive post-election push by Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the energy committee chairman.
    The legislation, which President Bush has vowed to sign, opens 8.3 million acres of Gulf waters believed to contain 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's enough energy to heat 6 million homes for 15 years, according to Domenici's staff.
    "This is something very important for America, and its important that we got it done," Domenici said in a telephone interview. He is the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
    The expanded drilling initiative was part of a massive tax package clearing the Senate just before adjournment of the 109th Congress. Domenici said the drilling provision should help stabilize natural gas prices that have skyrocketed in recent years.
    Opponents of Saturday's drilling proposal— including Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico— said a revised formula for sharing royalties from offshore drilling would funnel billions of dollars to four Gulf states and cut into federal government revenue at a time of massive deficits. Bingaman, the ranking Democrat on the energy committee, will take over as chairman of the Senate energy committee when Democrats take control of the Senate next month.
    Bingaman voted for the tax bill that contained the offshore drilling measure because it contained other provisions he supported, such as extended incentives for renewable energy production. But Jude McCartin, Bingaman's spokeswoman, said the senator thought the four Gulf states— including Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana— would get a disproportionately high percentage of the revenues.
    Bingaman has supported expanded offshore drilling in principal and could have supported the proposal Saturday under a different revenue sharing scenario, McCartin said.
    "The 50 states are not sharing equally in the royalties," McCartin said, adding that the drilling off the Florida coast will be at least 125 miles from the shore. "These resources belong to the country, not to this small number of states."
    Under the revenue sharing agreement, the four Gulf states will receive 37.5 percent of the drilling royalties, 12.5 percent will be funneled to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and 50 percent will be diverted to the U.S. Treasury. Much of the money received by the four coastal states is earmarked for coastal restoration and hurricane recovery.
    Domenici said he pushed doubly hard for a House-Senate offshore drilling compromise after Democrats won control of both chambers of Congress in the November mid-term elections. The House version of the bill initially placed fewer restrictions on the areas to be drilled. The Senate refused to accept the House version.
    Domenici said the initiative to expand Gulf water drilling could have slipped off of the agenda when Democrats take over control of the House and Senate in January.
    "We told the House we had to do it this way or we wouldn't get anything," Domenici said. "They (the incoming Democratic leadership) may not want to go offshore at all."
    Meanwhile, some environmentalists worried the new drilling allowance could pave the way to opening other ecologically sensitive areas to oil and gas drilling.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-MAIL writer Michael Coleman