Will Congress ban oil drilling off the Sonoma coast?

It's considered a long shot, but a permanent ban on offshore oil drilling along the North Coast could be approved by Congress this month.

"Everybody's holding their breath," said Richard Charter, a veteran anti-drilling advocate from Bodega Bay. "This is really the closest we've ever been to permanent protection" for the coast.

If such a measure is passed, it would be the first time in a 30-year battle that oil rigs were definitively barred from the Sonoma and part of the Mendocino coast, a goal that has united local officials, fishing interests and environmentalists.

The stiffest competition now comes from the crush of business pending before the lame-duck Congress, including the Bush tax cuts, unemployment benefits and the "don't ask, don't tell law" on gays and lesbians in the military.

Charter, a lobbyist with the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, said approval of a drilling ban "would be a long shot, end-of-session effort" but still a possibility until Congress adjourns, presumably before Christmas.

A bill originated by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, would more than double the size of two existing marine sanctuaries — in which drilling is prohibited. The measure appears likely to be rolled into an Omnibus Public Lands Act, congressional aides said Thursday.

The Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries currently cover about 1,800 square miles of ocean from just north of the Golden Gate Bridge to Bodega Head.

Woolsey's proposal, approved by the House last year and backed in the Senate by California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, would extend the sanctuaries' northern limit from Bodega Head to Point Arena in southern Mendocino County.

Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, confirmed that a draft of the omnibus lands bill is "ready to go" and could be introduced if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada "gives a green light."

Wicker declined to comment on whether the marine sanctuary measure would be included in the omnibus bill, but aides to both Woolsey and Boxer said Thursday they believed it would be included.

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