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Fla. drilling ban likely to stand

Congress was expected to reject a White House bid to open more of the Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling.

Published July 26, 2005

WASHINGTON - Despite a last-minute attempt by the White House to open more of the Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling, congressional negotiators were expected late Monday night to maintain a ban on drilling off Florida's coast while approving an unprecedented inventory of energy reserves in U.S. waters.

After meeting in a Capitol Hill conference room for more than five hours, House and Senate negotiators were still debating an attempt by the Bush administration to redraw state boundaries into the water to allow more drilling in the eastern gulf.

The negotiators were also wrangling over a provision, opposed by most of Florida's congressional delegation and Gov. Jeb Bush, to spend billions of dollars to survey gas and oil reserves in all U.S. waters, including Florida's.

On Monday night, Florida's lawmakers and opponents from other coastal states were hopeful they could remove the inventory from the energy bill.

Reps. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, sponsored an amendment to strip the inventory. "We think we have the votes to win," Stearns said.

Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, had joined Rep. Jim Davis, R-Tampa, and others in asking negotiators to reject an inventory on the grounds that identifying reserves in Florida's waters eventually would lead to drilling there.

Nelson and Martinez had been unable to keep the inventory out of the Senate version of the energy bill last month after several powerful senators insisted on its inclusion. The House version of the bill did not include an inventory.

About 65 members of the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, were negotiating the last parts of a huge energy bill Monday night. The conference committee planned to work all night in hopes the bill could be approved by the House and Senate before Congress leaves for a five-week recess Friday.

With billions in tax credits and subsidies at stake, the white marble hallway outside the meeting room was buzzing with anxious lobbyists.

Drilling advocates say they hope changes, such as an inventory, will entice more states to open their waters to oil and gas rigs. Some states, including Virginia, are considering it. The push to drill is fueled by record oil prices, a dwindling national supply and a growing public distaste for importing so much oil.

No such inventory has ever been done, and it would mark a major victory for the gas and oil industries and their oil-state allies in Congress.

If it passes, the inventory would begin within six months after the bill is signed into law. It would map all waters within 200 nautical miles of the nation's Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts.

Martinez and Bilirakis asked the Congressional Budget Office for a more accurate cost of the taypayer-funded inventory, since some estimates put it as high as $3.25-billion.

"My argument remains a question as to why we are considering a mammoth, extensive, and expensive inventory in areas covered by a moratorium on offshore drilling," Martinez said. "At a time when we are concerned about our national debt, the deficit and the ongoing cost of the war on terror, my colleagues need to weigh whether we need a multibillion dollar inventory."

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.

The federal government has banned virtually all drilling in Florida's offshore waters, generally to at least 100 miles, since 1983 - a decision upheld by Congress and the past three presidents, including President Bush.

Florida is also the only state on the Gulf of Mexico that prohibits oil drilling.

In a deal struck last month in the Senate, Congress kept the ban and temporarily protected a large section of the gulf, known as Lease Sale 181, that is not protected by moratorium but where no drilling has occurred.

In return, Florida senators agreed to support efforts by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to provide states that allow drilling with a greater share of the royalties from oil companies and to provide money to help Louisiana rebuild its eroded shores.

But last week, the White House offered to redraw state boundaries to allow Louisiana and other states that allow drilling to claim part of Lease Sale 181, which is about 250 miles off Tampa Bay and just more than 100 miles off Pensacola.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the administration was trying to resolve differences between lawmakers from Florida and Louisiana, as well as increase domestic oil and gas production.

Under the plan, the gulf would split largely between Florida and Louisiana, with waters on the Louisiana side open to more drilling.

"What we tried to do is resolve the differences between ... Florida and the other Gulf Coast states," Norton said Monday night. "Essentially, we applied a principle that says the state that is closest to an area ought to have a say in how it will be managed."

The proposal shows that the White House recognizes "that Louisiana has a real need and that the federal government has an obligation to help," Landrieu said.

But Landrieu, a member of the conference committee, said she did not plan to introduce any amendment that would reflect the White House plan since the earlier Senate deal would provide her state with more money.

Norton said she hoped other members would introduce the proposal during the negotiations.

Nelson had said he would filibuster the bill if it included the White House plan to open more of the Gulf for drilling, and he canceled plans to watch the planned launch of the space shuttle Discovery today in Cape Canaveral. Martinez, who also had planned to watch the shuttle launch, flew to Washington late Monday night.

"I am disappointed that the administration is seeking to aggressively push their proposal to open up Lease 181 and roll back Florida's hard-earned protections," Martinez said. "I can guarantee that if this proposal is contained in the final version of the Energy conference that I will actively fight against passage of this legislation."

Jacob DiPietre, Gov. Bush's spokesman, said the governor had not studied the White House proposal but remains opposed to an inventory and the removal of the ban.

"Florida's beaches are a vital piece of economy," DiPietre said. "The governor will continue to advocate for a moratorium and supports the Florida delegation's fight to remove an inventory from energy policy."

[Last modified July 26, 2005, 01:35:29]

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