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Senate supports check of gas, oil

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 13, 2003

WASHINGTON - The Senate endorsed an inventory of the nation's oil and gas reserves, including areas off Florida's coast where drilling is prohibited.

Environmentalists warned that Thursday's vote could eventually weaken a moratorium against drilling near the state.

"Florida's wall of protection against offshore drilling remains intact, but today's Senate vote represents the beginning of a new siege to tear it down," said Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group.

Lisa Speer, an oceans expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bill "undermines 20 years of strong congressional and administrative support for protecting America's coastal areas from harmful offshore oil and gas activities."

But supporters of the inventory said they simply want to use new technology to find energy sources. They said they have no plans to seek drilling.

"This amendment doesn't have anything to do with drilling or lifting moratoria," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. She said the nation "should have an accurate inventory of oil and gas resources."

"Knowledge of what you own is better than no knowledge," said Sen. Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who sponsored the energy bill.

The vote Thursday was on an amendment by Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., that would have eliminated the inventory.

The amendment was struck down, 54-44. The vote was largely along party lines, although coastal Republicans sided with Graham and energy-state Democrats voted against him.

Graham said he was "very disappointed" in the vote because the inventory was not needed and there have been studies showing marine creatures can be harmed by the 3-D seismic technology used to find oil and gas beneath the ocean floor.

Since 1982, Congress has prevented new leases for oil and gas near Florida's coast. A 1990 executive memorandum from then-President Bush, renewed by President Clinton, also prohibits the leases. It is due to expire in 2012.

The White House did not actively lobby for or against Graham's amendment, although officials have said they support the moratorium.

Graham said, "What I find to be outrageous is, as a candidate for the presidency, George Bush said he was going to protect the coastal states. There certainly wasn't any evidence of that effort today."

The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, supported Graham's amendment but said he was not worried by the vote.

Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Gov. Bush, said "he will continue to advocate the state's position against offshore drilling. He does not believe the defeat of the amendment jeopardizes anything regarding the moratorium."

The House version of energy bill does not require the inventory. The Senate still has other amendments to consider before it completes work on its version. Graham said he will try to change the language when the House and Senate sponsors meet to work out differences.

But that could be a difficult task because that meeting will probably be run by Domenici and his House counterpart Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., whose state is largely dependent on the energy industry.

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