A 1981 moratorium restricting the creation of new oil and natural gas wells in sections of America’s oceans could be partially overturned in the near future by proposed Congressional legislation, a possibility that has resulted in resistance from local politicians and environmentalists alike.

The potential amendment would allow natural gas drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara, as well as in the rest of the federally owned waters in the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf region. Congressman John Peterson, R-Pa., proposed the amendment at a House Appropriations Committee meeting, during which representatives discussed the allocation of funds to the U.S. Dept. of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, Peterson’s Communications Director Chris Tucker said. The proposal was accepted by the House Appropriations Committee on May 10, and Congress will vote on the amendment later this year.

Tucker said the proposed legislation would apply to federal waters in the Outer Continental Shelf area, which stretches between three and 100 miles from the coast. The amendment would only permit natural gas drilling, Tucker said, and would not allow oil drilling.

“I want to stress. … We’re not talking about oil,” Tucker said. “[The amendment] modified the existing congressional ban to allow for natural gas production.”

Peterson hopes the amendment will help make the United States more energy independent, Tucker said, and he thinks it will strengthen the American economy by decreasing the price of natural gas. He said the United States currently pays more for natural gas than most other nations.

“We can’t affect the price of oil, but we can affect the price of natural gas,” Tucker said. “We pay the highest price in the world for it, because we’re the only industrialized country in the world with a coastline that doesn’t allow drilling.”

Emily Kryder is the press secretary for Congresswoman Lois Capps, a Santa Barbara representative who opposes the proposed amendment. She said Capps thinks the amendment’s potential economic benefits are outweighed by the negative impact it would have on the marine environment.

“Even the exploration procedure is environmentally harmful,” Kryder said. “It generates huge amounts of waste and water pollution – bringing industrialization to these pristine areas. The seismic surveys used to estimate what resources lie beneath the ocean floor … have been associated with ruptured fish bladders, whale beachings and marine habitat destruction.”

Kryder said she does not think oil companies will invest the money required to create natural gas wells without the possibility of being allowed to drill for oil, as well. She said she thinks that allowing natural gas drilling will probably lead to oil drilling.

“There’s no such thing as an ‘only natural gas’ well,” Kryder said. “There’s no separating natural gas from oil. I am very skeptical that a production company would invest millions of dollars in infrastructure to drill these deep wells and then, if they were to hit a major source of oil, would just walk away.”

However, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Vice President Greg Stringham said that in certain circumstances, drilling for natural gas alone can be a profitable enterprise.

“Sometimes gas and oil appear in the same reservoir,” Stringham said. “When that happens, they abandon the well, they plug it. There are between 20 and 30 [natural gas only] wells on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes.”

Capps believes that the government should focus on reducing oil consumption and investing in alternative energy sources, Kryder said.

“We can’t drill our way to energy independence,” Kryder said. “It would be wiser to focus on investing in renewable energy sources, and reducing consumption is an enormous step.”

Tucker said he thinks Peterson’s amendment is not intended to end America’s energy crisis, but is merely supposed to be a step in the process. He said he feels that the amendment would aid in the development of natural energy sources.

“Congresswoman Capps makes the point that we can’t drill our way out of this situation, we simply don’t have the oil,” Tucker said. “We agree 100 percent that we need to shift our energy fuel infrastructure. But you have to be prepared to advance solutions… all of which include natural gas. You want to get to hydrogen and you want to get to ethanol, you need natural gas to get there. This is the bridge to our future.”

Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center – a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit environmental law agency – said the EDC opposes the legislation, even though it would not have a direct effect on Santa Barbara because much of the area’s coastline is already subject to drilling for oil and natural gas.

“We already have leases offshore.” Krop said. “We still have 37 undeveloped offshore drilling leases, on which construction has been forestalled through legal action. If new construction did go forward, we would not see the oil for 10 years.”

Krop said she thinks Congress is wasting its time with the proposed amendment.

“We’re disappointed this keeps coming up,” Krop said. “We would rather that Congress put its energies into reducing consumption and into sustainable energy sources.”