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House votes for limited offshore drilling

WASHINGTON — The House voted late Tuesday to open waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to oil and gas drilling but only 50 or more miles out to sea and only if a state agrees to energy development off its shore.

Democratic leaders called it a step toward energy independence, but Republicans labeled it a "sham" because most of the estimated 18 billion barrels of oil thought to lie below off-limits coastal waters are within 50 miles of land and will remain out of bounds.

The measure passed in a largely party-line vote of 236-189. It now goes to the Senate, where energy will be the topic later in the week. Thirteen Democrats bucked their leadership and voted against the measure.

Even before the House vote, the White House said President Bush was prepared to veto the measure should it reach his desk. An administration statement said the bill would "stifle development" of offshore energy resources by essentially making permanent drilling bans within the 50-mile coastal buffer, while imposing new taxes on the largest oil companies.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bill "represents a new direction in energy policy" and a "bold step forward that will end our dependence on foreign oil" by using billions of dollars collected in taxes on large oil companies to promote alternative fuels and energy efficiency.

Republicans called the drilling measure a ruse to provide political cover to Democrats feeling pressure to support more drilling at a time of high gas prices.

"How much new drilling do we get out of this bill? It's zero. Just zero," declared House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. "It's a hoax on the American people. This is intended for one reason ... so the Democrats can say we voted on energy."

The measure would allow drilling in waters 50 miles from shore almost everywhere along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as long as a state agrees to go along with energy development off its coast.

Each year for the past 26 years, Congress has passed drilling bans on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts because of environmental concerns and pressure from coastal states worried that drilling might hurt the tourist business.

Unlike bills offered by House Republicans and others being considered in the Senate, the House-passed legislation would not share royalties from energy production with the adjacent states. Boehner said without royalty sharing, states probably would not opt for drilling off their beaches.

The bill would also roll back nearly $18 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for the five largest oil companies and require energy companies to pay billions of dollars in royalties they avoided because of an Interior Department contracting error.

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