If Congress Lifts the Offshore Oil Drilling Moratorium, What Happens Next?

The issue then moves to individual states. And there is no guarantee that more oil would flow.

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But the political winds are shifting. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama has shown a new willingness to allow expanded drilling. The Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Christ, recently changed his mind on this issue, saying he now supports drilling if it's done in an environmentally safe manner. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, where a competitive gubernatorial campaign is underway, Republican candidate and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has said that, if elected, he would sign an executive order to allow new drilling. That might work for state waters, but he would need federal approval to go beyond there.

Even if some states eventually do grant approval for new drilling, there are numerous other potential obstacles. Environmental reviews will need to be conducted. State officials will have to consult with the public. Lease sales—in which oil companies bid on tracts they may want to explore--will have to be scheduled and held.

These requirements can take several years to complete. In 2006, for example, Congress opened up several million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for new leasing and drilling, of which a large portion had been previously off-limits. Because of the necessary planning work, many of these tracts won't come up for bidding until next year. (And even if these tracts receive bids, and an oil company chooses to develop them, it usually takes about seven to ten years for oil to start flowing, according the Energy Information Administration.)

The best estimates now suggest that about 18 billion barrels of oil are sitting in areas currently off-limits to drilling. But the oil deposits aren't distributed evenly. Nearly 10 billion gallons lie off California, compared with only about 3.8 billion along the Atlantic.

Drilling advocates would like to see all of those areas opened up, of course, but California, with its Democratic-controlled legislature and drilling-averse governor, could well stay out of play. The state is not included in the Gang of 10 proposal, which, compared with other drilling legislation being offered, has a better chance of passing Congress because it includes incentives for renewable energy.