House passes two bills to ban new offshore drilling

(This September 11 story corrects name to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not Reserve in first paragraph)

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills banning new offshore oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and Florida and was set to vote on a third banning drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The first bill, sponsored by Representative Francis Rooney, a conservative Florida Republican who supports action to tackle climate change, would permanently ban oil and gas leasing in parts of the Gulf of Mexico close to his state’s coast.

The measure passed 248 to 180, with the support of about 20 Republicans. Rooney said a series of spills from oil and gas operations in the gulf have threatened jobs in marine recreation and fishing.

The bills were not expected to gain traction in the Republican-led Senate. But the votes in the Democratic-led House of Representatives were meant to send a signal to Republicans who have supported rollbacks of environmental regulations on oil and gas.

Republican President Donald Trump has called for opening up oil and gas production and reversed or weakened regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas operations and carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles.

Democratic lawmakers also hoped to gain momentum on climate issues as Democratic hopefuls in the 2020 presidential campaign tout their climate change plans, many of which seek to reverse some of Trump’s energy policies.

The House also passed a measure by 238 to 189 sponsored by Representative Joe Cunningham, a South Carolina Democrat, to permanently ban oil and gas leasing off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

“This bill acknowledges that if we don’t act, drilling rigs could soon appear off of our beaches,” said Cunningham, whose state’s beaches are a major tourist draw.

Oil and gas interests opposed the bills, saying that bans only increase U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

“Congress should reject these bills, which would only outsource energy production to countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia, and instead stand up American energy produced with American values,” said Tim Charters, a vice president at the National Ocean Industries Association.

The House was expected to vote on Thursday on a bill sponsored by Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, to stop the Trump administration from opening the Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling.

Conservationists consider ANWR to be one of the last pristine places left on Earth. It is home to wildlife populations including caribou, polar bears and millions of birds that migrate to six of the seven continents.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown