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Drilling for gulf oil gains support

It was once unthinkable, but now Florida congressmen are looking for a deal to allow derricks 100 miles offshore.

Published September 16, 2005

WASHINGTON - Time was, the idea of loosening restrictions on offshore oil and gas exploration was tantamount to banning tarpon fishing or white sandy beaches. Politicians from Florida's West Coast just didn't do it.

But facing a steady drive in Congress to lift longtime bans against drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, particularly after Hurricane Katrina wrecked oil production off Louisiana, Florida Republicans in the U.S. House are backing a deal that would relinquish some protections in exchange for permanent restrictions closer to shore.

Reps. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, who serve on the House Energy Committee, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, are negotiating the deal with House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

They've also been selling their House colleagues on the plan, which would create a 100- to 125-mile buffer around the state, out of sight of land. It would include areas off the East Coast and the Straits of Florida that currently aren't protected.

Any future decisions to drill within that buffer would be up to the Florida governor and Legislature, rather than the Interior Department or Congress.

In return, Florida would agree to lift the hodgepodge of federal moratoriums covering much of the eastern gulf, including most of a region known as Lease Sale Area 181.

"It's very important that there be some permanence to the protections that have been scattered through the eastern gulf for years," said Miller, who has been a staunch opponent of drilling.

"Administrations change, Congress changes. This has been an issue that's been very important to Floridians, and I think they should have the most say in what happens in their waters."

A firm proposal is likely several weeks away, and may be tacked onto a huge budget bill that would require approval from both chambers of Congress. It also is likely to shatter the bipartisan coalition of Florida lawmakers that has helped keep drilling at bay for more than 20 years.

Democrats - who have been largely excluded from negotiations - say they're skeptical about the benefits of the deal.

Oil and gas companies are eager to drill in deep parts of Area 181, which begins 213 miles off Pinellas County. Previous geologic surveys suggested there also are smaller reserves slightly more than 100 miles off Tampa Bay, Sarasota and Naples.

And just as Katrina has caused higher gas prices, making a case for more domestic oil production and for spreading rigs out beyond the northern gulf, Democrats and environmentalists say contamination caused by destroyed rigs makes a case against putting rigs off Florida. The extent of the environmental damage from Katrina still isn't known.

"I think it's a terrible mistake for Florida," said Rep. Jim Davis, R-Tampa, who is running for governor. "We are already protected. There's no reason to give up that protection."

Florida's two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, say they oppose the deal as well.

But several Republicans said this week they like the idea, including U.S. Reps. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores; Ginny Brown-Waite of Crystal River; Mark Foley of West Palm Beach; Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami; and Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale.

Gov. Jeb Bush, whose support is important, could not be reached Thursday, but recently he has said he favors a 100-mile buffer around the state. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota, who is running for the Senate seat now held by Nelson, said she has always opposed any concessions on Gulf Coast drilling and had not been approached about the deal.

"There a lot of issues that would have to satisfy me," she said, but "if we could negotiate ourselves a better position, I would be willing to listen."

A federal moratorium protecting the narrow "stovepipe" portion of 181, which comes within 23 miles of Pensacola, expires in 2007, while another moratorium that prevents drilling in most of the rest of Area 181 expires in 2012.

After that, there are no guarantees. Advocates say they fear neither Congress nor the future president will be inclined to extend the protections, particularly if energy prices keep rising.

Foley said constituents berated him at two town hall meetings this summer after he voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Brown-Waite said she is "seeing less resistance to drilling the higher the price of gas."

Since Katrina two weeks ago halted drilling off Louisiana and Mississippi, which accounts for nearly one-third of domestic oil production, lawmakers have called for rethinking the moratoriums off Florida and other states. A group of 100 U.S. companies also sent a letter to House leaders, urging them to open the eastern gulf to drilling.

Young, a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, first slipped a congressional ban on drilling into an appropriations bill back in 1983. He has been fighting for it ever since. But he said he believes Florida's position is getting harder to defend.

"I agree it would be better to make permanent, and I think (Bilirakis and Stearns) are doing a good job," Young said. "If they can make it happen here, that will be good."

The proposal would split a longtime alliance between Davis and Miller, who have led efforts to keep drilling far off Florida's shores. Miller said he'd be happy to allow it if the deal protects military training in the eastern gulf.

Eglin Air Force Base is in his Panhandle district, and the Air Force and Navy have opposed building platforms in the eastern gulf for fear they would interfere with sea, air and live-fire exercises. In letters to Miller last month, Air Force officials reiterated those concerns, but also provided detailed coordinates of where they could accept drilling.

With a few exceptions, drilling in most of the gulf outside the 100-mile limit would be okay, Miller said. He said he is working with Pombo, the House Resources Committee chairman, to exempt from drilling areas the military needs.

Davis said he supports more deepwater drilling in the central and western gulf, but he contends the reserves in the eastern gulf aren't substantial enough "to take the risk of what could be irreversible damage to our beaches, our environment, our economy and our way of life."

"It's a tremendous disservice to Florida and the country that a proposal of this importance is being discussed behind closed doors," he added.

If Pombo and the Floridians reach an agreement, the proposal may become part of a large budget reconciliation bill, along with a provision to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is attractive because, procedurely, the reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered in the Senate. That makes it harder for Martinez or Nelson to defeat.

But the reconciliation bill, which includes $10-billion in Medicaid cuts and $70-billion worth of tax cuts, is dear to Republican leaders, and they are unlikely to include the Florida deal unless most, if not all, of the state's 18 Republicans support it. They wouldn't want to risk losing their votes on the budget bill. Bilirakis said he is pleased with negotiations so far. He and Stearns tried to put a similar provision in the energy bill this summer, but their colleagues balked.

Nelson, meanwhile, already is preparing for the fight. Allowing drilling even 100 miles offshore would endanger the environment and Florida's tourism industry, he said. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he says he has talked with several Air Force leaders who fear it could hamper training.

On the second floor of his Senate office, Nelson has a thick stack of poster-sized foamboard props: Maps of military training ranges in the gulf, a quote from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warning about civilian "encroachment" on military installations, photos of pristine Florida beaches and of seabirds bespoiled by oil.

Nelson has toted them to the Senate floor several times this year already, to help fight attempts to drill in the gulf. They are large and colorful, and look good on C-SPAN.

Recent developments in gulf oil drilling

Sept. 2005: House Natural Resources Committee creates proposal as part of a budget bill to allow oil drilling rigs off the coast of Florida.

Aug. 22, 2005: Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said no drilling for oil or gas will be done within 100 miles of the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

July 2005: Congress decides not to allow drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida's coast. They do agree to inventory the potential oil and gas reserves off the Florida coast, which includes seismic testing.

June 2005: Congress agreed to keep the ban on oil drilling off the Florida coast and temporarily protect Lease Sale 181, a large section of the gulf. This area is not protected by the moratorium but no drilling has occurred.

March 2005: The Senate approved oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Florida Sen. Mel Martinez voted for the drilling after the Bush administration promised to extend the moratorium by five years on drilling off the Florida coast.

Sources: Florida Today, Palm Beach Post, Tampa Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald archives

[Last modified September 16, 2005, 01:37:08]

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