Hastings helps move oil politics to front burner

WASHINGTON -- With gasoline prices rising, Rep. Doc Hastings wants to drill for more oil.

"In a down economy, it seems to me we ought to be exploring more domestic energy production, wherever it may be," said the Washington Republican, who got to bang the gavel for the first time on Wednesday as the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

As the new Congress got fully under way this week, the politics of oil quickly moved to the front burner.

Seeking to block any more drilling on the West Coast, two Democratic senators -- Washington's Maria Cantwell and California's Barbara Boxer -- introduced legislation Tuesday that would permanently ban offshore drilling off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.

"One of the lessons learned from the disastrous BP oil spill is that without a fundamental transformation of the oil industry another spill is possible, even likely," Cantwell said. "That's not a risk I'm willing to take for Washington state's beautiful coastlines and the communities that depend on them."

Hastings, however, said the White House should be doing everything it can to increase U.S. energy production. He wants to speed up the process for approving federal permits for more offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hastings, whose committee held its first hearing on last year's BP oil spill, said the disaster should not bring drilling to a halt. "We need to have a robust domestic energy production area, and clearly the Gulf of Mexico is that right now," he said.

After getting trounced in the 2010 congressional elections, Democratic opponents on Hastings' committee are ready to play defense.

"The 'drill, baby, drill' folks won the election," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. "And I would expect them to do everything they can to do just that: 'Drill, baby, drill.' "

Cantwell said that more drilling won't reduce gasoline prices, and that the U.S. should focus "on the promising clean energy alternatives that are better for consumers."

After being in place for decades, offshore oil and gas drilling moratoriums expired in 2008. Cantwell said the West Coast is protected now only by a pledge from President Obama that there will be no new offshore drilling there.

Hastings countered that families struggling to make ends meet "cannot afford to have American energy development slowed down."

He said Congress needs to ensure that offshore drilling meets the highest safety standards, but he added: "As gasoline prices continue to rise, we cannot allow ourselves to become increasingly dependent on hostile foreign nations for our energy needs."

Hastings said there will be pressure on Obama to allow more drilling if gasoline prices continue to rise. And he said any congressional action that results from the spill "should accomplish our shared goals of improving safety, allowing drilling to move forward in a timely manner" and putting people back to work.

Asked if the search for energy should include the Pacific Coast, he said: "Do I feel that that should be something we look at? The answer to that is yes, including Alaska."

-- Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com