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Imaginary lines

The Bush administration and a Louisiana senator have devised a plan to get past the drilling moratorium off Florida's Gulf coast: Redraw state lines.

A Times Editorial
Published May 31, 2005

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and the Bush administration have hatched a plot to overcome Florida's resistance to oil exploration off its Gulf beaches. It boils down to this: Redraw the map so that Louisiana's seaward boundary stretches far into the eastern Gulf, claiming most of a 3-million-acre tract off Florida's coast that is currently under a drilling moratorium. Then Louisiana can say it no longer wants to be part of the moratorium and welcome the construction of oil rigs.

That isn't the most audacious part of this scheme. To justify the new Louisiana boundary, the Interior Department is relying on a map drawn up as part of a United Nations treaty, called Law of the Sea. But the United States has refused to ratify that treaty because conservative Republicans oppose it as a threat to U.S. sovereignty.

What about Florida's sovereignty? State officials have fought a defensive battle for years to keep oil rigs off our coast and oil off our beaches. Although the Interior Department has started taking bids on leases in part of the 3-million acres, known as Tract 181, Florida officials have been able to stop exploration through political pressure.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat as Landrieu is, has held up the nomination of Interior's deputy secretary until he gets assurance from Secretary Gale Norton that the moratorium will stand. It has been an effective tactic, but that could change. Nelson's office recently found out what Landrieu has in mind.

While the drilling moratorium was left in the Senate energy bill that passed out of committee, Landrieu plans to file a floor amendment that would allow individual states to opt out of the moratorium. That could pry open Tract 181 for drilling because state boundaries also would be redrawn and projected onto the outer continental shelf.

Any boundary extension based on common sense would put Tract 181 mostly, if not entirely, under Florida's jurisdiction. But the map Nelson's office obtained from the Interior Department shows Louisiana's redrawn line jutting at a 45-degree angle into Florida's side of the Gulf, putting most of Tract 181 inside Louisiana's new seaward boundary.

The new lines come from the Law of the Sea Treaty, said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson's deputy chief of staff. That's odd, because Republican conservatives who stopped ratification of the treaty often quote President Reagan's objection that resource regulation would be turned over to an international authority. Yet Norton and Landrieu don't mind using the invalid treaty to nullify Florida's legitimate objections to offshore drilling.

Hypocrisy and trickery are nothing new to Congress or the Bush administration. And Florida's other senator, Republican Mel Martinez, has made it even easier to pull off this chicanery. Martinez says he cut a deal with Norton to keep oil rigs 100 miles off Florida in exchange for his vote to drill in the arctic. Tract 181 lies beyond the 100-mile line, so Martinez saved nothing except his reputation for being an easy dupe for the Bush administration.

We understand that Louisiana has never seen a drilling rig it doesn't like and that Landrieu is fronting for her state's oil interests. But she and Norton should keep their greedy paws out of the waters off Florida's coast, which is too valuable to risk to reckless oil exploration. Gov. Jeb Bush and other prominent state officials need to join Nelson in the fight to expose this ruse and stop it before it goes any further.

[Last modified May 31, 2005, 00:44:11]

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