Oil-Drilling Safety Bill Stalls Amid Fight Over Oil Royalties

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July 21, 2011

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–A group of mostly Republican lawmakers blocked a key vote on legislation to strengthen oil-drilling safety Thursday after efforts to use the bill to steer billions of dollars of oil royalties to coastal states like Alaska and Louisiana appeared likely to fail.

The move postpones an important committee-level vote on offshore safety legislation that has been in the works for more than a year, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The delay gives more time to behind-the-scenes deal makers to work out a compromise on so-called revenue-sharing proposals, which would direct nearly 40% of royalty revenue away from the federal government and to the coastal states.

But the delay also raises questions about the fate of the offshore drilling safety legislation and the ability of lawmakers to move that bill to the floor of the Senate.

Events unfolded Thursday at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which was scheduled to hold a much-anticipated vote on legislation that steps up enforcement of drilling safety standards and strengthens drilling safety provisions.

Heading into the vote, two coastal senators–Sens. Mary Landrieu (D., La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska)–were actively recruiting support for an amendment that would steer 37.5% of oil royalties, which are currently collected by the federal government, to coastal states.

With the federal government reporting more than $5 billion in offshore royalty revenue in 2010, such a move would be a big win for coastal state governments. Landrieu has supported such a proposal for years, arguing that coastal states are entitled to some of the royalty revenue that comes from all production off their shores.

An existing law allows Gulf Coast states to collect 37.5% of royalty revenue on some leases, starting in 2017.

Because Landrieu and Murkowski need the support of at least some Democrats to attach the revenue-sharing amendment to the drilling safety bill, they decided in 11th-hour deal-making to create a fund to promote clean energy. In doing so, they hoped to attract the support of some Democrats, a Republican aide said.

But when a measure to create such a fund failed in the committee Thursday, the chance of success for the revenue-sharing plan decreased substantially. Several Republicans then walked out of the committee room, leaving the committee without enough members to hold a vote and effectively blocking any further action.

The fate of the offshore-drilling safety legislation is now uncertain, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico who chairs the energy committee. When asked by a reporter whether the bill could be revived, Bingaman shook his head and said, “I don’t know.”

-By Tennille Tracy, Dow Jones Newswires

Photo via OilSpillCommission.gov

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