WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives unveiled legislation on Wednesday that, if passed, would significantly expand domestic oil production by permitting offshore drilling at least 50 miles from U.S. coasts.
The package gives all U.S. states the option to allow drilling between 50 and 100 miles off their shores. Areas further than 100 miles from the coast would be completely open oil exploration.
After vigorously opposing calls from Republicans to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling, Democratic leaders recently softened their position agreeing to allow votes on drilling as a part of larger energy bills.
Under the Democratic bill, national marine sanctuaries and monuments would remain off limits and the U.S. Defense Department would still be able to designate national defense areas off the coasts. Any oil exploration would have to protect the coastal environment.
The eastern Gulf of Mexico would also be closed to offshore drilling until 2022.
Democrats said they would announce on Thursday when lawmakers will vote on the package.
In this election year, disputes over increasing energy production have prevented lawmakers from passing significant energy legislation.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain has pushed strongly for increased offshore drilling, while the Democratic presidential contender, Barack Obama, changed his stance to support limited drilling.
The House energy package offers much more of the Outer Continental Shelf for oil exploration, than a proposed bipartisan bill energy bill in the Senate.
That package, supported by 16 Senators, would open only the coasts of Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas to offshore drilling. The Gang of 16 bill would also open the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
In addition to offshore drilling, the House energy package tackles conservation and energy efficiency as well as releasing oil from the nation's emergency stockpile.
Measures in the House energy package include:
- Selling 70 million barrels of light crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve
- Offering renewable energy and efficiency tax credits that would be funded by repealing some tax breaks for oil industry
- Requiring oil companies to develop the leases they already hold
- Requiring more frequent lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.