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By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House on Thursday approved a long-shot bill to expand domestic energy exploration, including opening up areas off the West Coast to drilling.

The measure would require lease sales by the end of next year for energy production off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, with production coming from existing offshore rigs or onshore-based extended-reach drilling operations.

It would also allow drilling off the Virginia and South Carolina coasts and expand energy production on federal land, including the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. It was approved on a largely party-line vote of 229-185.

In addition, the legislation would direct the Interior Department to develop a five-year plan that provides for exploration in coastal areas “considered to have the largest undiscovered technically recoverable oil and gas resources,” including areas off California.

Offshore drilling enjoys support in Virginia and South Carolina, but it has long been controversial in California, where a 1969 spill off Santa Barbara devastated the coast.

Similar House-approved measures have died in the Senate, but House Republicans hope this bill, called the Lowering Gasoline Prices to Fuel an America That Works Act, will gain greater support amid a rise in gas prices. At the very least, they hope to use the issue to highlight differences between the parties on energy policy before the fall election.

As the House debated the measure, 14 Democratic senators and one independent introduced legislation directing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates oil markets, to take emergency action to eliminate excessive oil speculation.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), assailed House GOP leaders for trying to “override the will of my constituents and California voters who overwhelmingly oppose new offshore drilling.” Capps’ district is based in Santa Barbara.

The California delegation broke along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it, except for Rep. Jim Costa (D), who backed the bill. Democratic Reps. George Miller and Grace F. Napolitano did not vote.

AFP Photo / Karen Bleier

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