The U.S. House of Representatives opens debate today on compromise legislation that would end the almost 40-year-old moratorium on new offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. The measure, which would allow drilling 50 miles offshore with a state's approval, also calls for the elimination of about $18 billion in tax breaks for big oil companies, with the money going to support alternative energy sources.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had at first suggested opening only parts of the southeastern Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico to drilling, but the final version of the legislation would allow drilling off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, with only the area off Florida's west coast remaining off-limits, the Washington Post reports.

Separate legislation introduced in the Senate, developed by a group of about 20 Democrats and Republicans, would limit new Atlantic drilling to offshore areas of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia while allowing no new drilling in the Pacific. However, it would allow drilling of Florida's west coast -- leading Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to promise a filibuster in order to protect his state's tourism industry and sensitive military testing areas.

Congressional leaders are under intense pressure to come up with some sort of compromise in the next two weeks before adjournment. A failure to act would mean the end of the moratorium, which would open up the entire U.S. coast within three miles of the shoreline to drilling. President Bush lifted the executive ban on new drilling earlier this summer.

But Congress faces stiff opposition on drilling from environmental watchdogs. Says Ocean Conservancy Executive Vice President Dennis Kelso:

To protect our economy and our ocean, an effective energy plan should emphasize solutions that are cheaper, faster and safer than offshore drilling by emphasizing renewable energy resources, alternate fuels and energy efficiency. Many of these important initiatives were included in the House bill, but an agreement to open up more drilling along the entire coastline of the contiguous 48 states is a step in the wrong direction.
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One of the aspects of the Senate's offshore drilling legislation that has not received a great deal of attention so far is its unprecedented subsidies for the commercial nuclear power industry.

The measure would offer unlimited loan guarantees for the construction of new reactors, a provision that could eventually cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. According to an analysis by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the measure would require that the loan guarantees cover 100 percent of the debt for as much as 80 percent of the facility's cost while expanding the definition of project costs to include development, planning and permitting.

Though taxpayers would be obliged to cover the costs only if borrowers default, a 2003 Congressional Budget Office analysis found the default rate on nuclear construction debts might be as high as 50 percent because of the projects' soaring costs.

The industry has promoted nuclear power as a solution to man-made global warming. But when the entire fuel chain is taken into consideration, nuclear power is actually a net producer of greenhouse gases, according to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. At the same time, adding enough nuclear power to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on alternatives that don't create thousands of tons of deadly waste or risk terrible accidents like those that occurred at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

In an effort to get the nuclear subsidies taken out of the bill, PSR, NIRS and other national groups are holding a National Call-In Day to the Senate tomorrow, Sept. 17. They're hoping to spur at least 10,000 calls and hope to keep the phones ringing all day. If you'd like to participate, call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask your Senators to take the taxpayer loan guarantees for nuclear power out of the bill. For more details on the call-in day, click here.