Prices concern

The vote to end the moratorium on offshore drilling comes shortly after Democrats in the US congress argued that offshore drilling would have little impact on consumer petrol prices.

But public opinion of offshore drilling has changed in the face of rising petrol prices, which reached $4 a gallon this summer.

Republicans had long argued that the ban on offshore drilling should be removed. John McCain, the Republican candidate for the presidency, has made offshore drilling a key element of his campaign.

Republicans have called the Democrat bill a "sham" and a "hoax".

Opponents of the package say that states will have little incentive to open their coasts to exploration as they will not share in the revenues generated.

The White House may also veto the bill.

"At a time when American families are in need of genuine relief from the effects of high fuel prices, this bill purports to open access to American energy sources while in reality taking actions to stifle development," the White House said in a statement.
 
Critics of the bill also say that because drilling is only permitted at least 80km away from the US coast, a large area close to the shore will not be exploited.

'Compromise' package

Democrats say that their package will open up between 129 million hectares and 164 million hectares to drilling.

Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said: "This legislation is a result of reasonable compromise that will put us on a path to energy independence by expanding domestic supply."

Environmental groups condemned the bill, saying that it will endanger marine life.

"As it stands, the clean energy provisions in this bill are dwarfed by the push for outdated, dirty and expensive energy," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defence Council, said.

The senate is expected later this week to pass legislation that will expand offshore drilling, but not to the same extent as the House.

The chambers will have to work out a final energy package for submission to the White House.