ANITA KUMAR and WES ALLISON
Florida's senators get the moratorium on oil drilling off the state's coast extended.
WASHINGTON - They delayed, they threatened, they cajoled. They aggravated their colleagues and tested the bounds of patience.
But in the end, Florida's U.S. senators brokered a deal that blocks the latest attempt to end the long-standing federal ban on drilling for oil and natural gas off the state's expansive coast.
The agreement, announced Wednesday morning, came after Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson refused to relinquish the Senate floor so his colleagues could proceed on the energy bill now moving through Congress.
"We had to go through quite an exercise to get there," Nelson said. Sen. "Mel Martinez and I had a big win . . . because we finally got the committee leadership to back down. But that's just the first step."
The deal keeps the existing congressional moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean until 2012. It also would temporarily protect a large section of the gulf, known as Lease Sale 181, that is not protected by moratorium but where no drilling has occurred.
Florida was the only state singled out under the verbal agreement, hashed out late Tuesday night between the state's senators and committee leaders. Nelson and Martinez rejected an earlier proposal that would have protected only the areas covered by the current ban.
Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was visibly frustrated by the delaying tactics and frequent requests for guarantees by Nelson and Martinez; he needed to keep the two-week schedule for debate on the energy bill on track.
"I understand the importance of this issue to my colleagues from Florida. Although we do not agree, I respect their difference of opinion," said Domenici, R-N.M. "I respect their passion on this issue and I make this concession because I understand the necessity of moving forward with this energy bill."
The agreement puts a stop to a proposal by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who wanted the federal government to draw state boundaries farther into the water - a move that would have resulted in Florida losing waters to oil-drilling states.
In return for the deal, Florida's senators will support Landrieu's efforts to provide states that allow drilling with a greater share of the royalties from oil companies and provide money to help Louisiana rebuild its eroded shores.
While generally supportive of each state's ability to control drilling off its coasts, several senators said the protections afforded to Florida go too far, by prohibiting oil and gas rigs for hundreds of miles off the Gulf Coast.
"Tell the Floridians that means we're going to continue to kneel before the Arab world with a tin cup and beg for oil," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., whose state may seek federal approval to allow drilling for natural gas off its coast. "What's the price of that?"
Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., a senior member of the committee, said the deal upsets the balance between states' rights and the national interest. Florida should be able to stop drilling in its waters, he said, but not so far out to sea.
"That's a lot," Thomas said disapprovingly. "A lot of people think that's one of the biggest undeveloped resources, and that we ought to be developing it."
The federal government has banned virtually all drilling in Florida's offshore waters since 1983 - a decision upheld by Congress and the past three presidents, including George W. Bush. Florida is also the only state on the Gulf of Mexico that prohibits drilling in its inshore waters.
Some oil leases were sold in the gulf, south of the Florida Panhandle, many years ago. But Congress and President Bush's father prevented drilling there, and new leases are prohibited within about 100 miles of Pensacola.
Florida environmentalists welcomed the news from Washington on Wednesday but were measured in their comments because they see the deal as just one small win in a long series of battles.
"We think this is a 10-round fight, and Sens. Nelson and Martinez won the first round," said Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group.
Congress is considering a half-dozen bills and amendments this year that would weaken the drilling ban off Florida's coasts and other parts of the United States. The push is fueled by record-high oil prices, a dwindling national supply and a growing public distaste for importing so much oil.
"The oil industry is drooling at the potential of inching closer to Florida's shoreline," said Frank Jackalone, Florida representative of the Sierra Club. "They will try to find every way they can."
The energy bill already includes a provision that would mandate the first inventory of oil and gas reserves of its kind in all U.S. waters, including Florida's.
Congress has been trying to pass similar legislation since the 1980s, but it always failed because opponents say it represents a "slippery slope" toward drilling in areas that long have been under a drilling moratorium.
Nelson and Martinez plan to fight the inventory altogether next week if they are unable to reach a compromise to exempt Florida.
"I want to protect the Gulf Coast of Florida and I have the right to be unreasonable about it," Martinez said. "We have a tradition in protecting this Gulf Coast."
Only a handful of states allow drilling off their shores. But for the first time in about two decades a new state, Virginia, has indicated it may want to join them; drilling advocates are optimistic it's a sign of more to come.
Landrieu, who had planned to introduce several amendments to promote drilling, was unhappy with the deal and on Wednesday took to the Senate floor to berate states, including Florida, that use more energy than they produce.
The modern oil and gas industry is clean, safe and efficient, she said. The rigs make for great fishing. And the nation desperately needs the energy. She said she was disappointed that the Florida agreement prevents drilling in so much of the eastern gulf.
"I don't hope to change Florida's mind overnight, but I do hope to as we lay out the facts," Landrieu said. "Then more people from Florida can understand you can have a great tourism industry, and also have some drilling."