If there's drilling, royalties should fuel alternative energy

John McCain set a new agenda with his campaign mantra, "Drill here, drill now."

Give the Arizona Republican credit -- or, depending on your perspective, blame -- for this week's debate in Washington.

Faced with voters angry about $4-a-gallon gasoline and McCain's relentless call for more drilling, the House voted to scale back a long-standing moratorium on new offshore oil and gas development. A Senate vote is pending.

We supported the moratorium in the past -- and we still do.

In the short term, offshore drilling will have no impact on the price of oil -- which has fallen more than $50 a barrel in 2½ months, not because of new drilling or pressure for more drilling, but because people are using less.

In the long term, more drilling won't wean us from foreign oil. There isn't enough out there, even under the most optimistic scenarios. Nor will it address our most pressing energy need: developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

But public fury over the price of gasoline is real, and that is shaping this election-year debate.

The House bill ends the moratorium beyond 100 miles from shore and allows states to authorize drilling in water between 50 and 100 miles from shore. It also rolls back $17 billion in tax breaks for Big Oil.

The Senate may be less generous, excluding the Pacific coast and the northern Atlantic.

In either scenario, drilling supporters get much of what they want, including time to make their case for more by looking for oil in newly opened areas, but they aren't taking yes for an answer.

Most House Republicans voted no, arguing that too much territory would remain off limits and objecting that royalties for drilling between 50 and 100 miles from shore would go to alternative energy programs rather than being offered to the states as an incentive (a nicer word for bribes) to approve drilling.

If there's to be more drilling, it's in everyone's interest, including those states that favor drilling off their coasts, to use at least some of the royalties for alternative energy programs.

Meanwhile, Congress must act quickly to prevent investment and production tax credits for alternative energy from expiring this year. Without those credits, some experts say spending on wind and solar could fall by more than half. An extension should be attached to any offshore oil legislation.

Measures to extend the credits have come up in the Senate several times this year, and McCain missed every vote. He says he's for alternative energy as well as drilling, and he should give extension of these tax credits the same priority he has given to opening the coast to more drilling rigs.