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Bush defends gulf drilling compromise

The governor is accused of backtracking on the environment. He says he's defending what he can in the new energy reality.

Published October 7, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A testy Gov. Jeb Bush insisted Thursday that he's committed to protecting the Florida coast from offshore drilling, while critics accused him of a retreat that could threaten the state's fragile environment.

For two months, Bush has worked with a group of Florida Republicans in Congress to negotiate a delicate drilling compromise at a time when the pressure to allow drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico is escalating.

Bush said he wants a long-term drilling ban to replace current piecemeal restrictions on individual parcels of gulf bottom that can be lifted by presidential or congressional decrees. He also wants to secure a permanent ban on drilling in the Florida Straits on the east coast, and in the Atlantic Ocean.

The deal that Bush and several Florida Republicans have endorsed would allow oil rigs 125 miles off the Gulf Coast, beyond sight, and would permit energy companies to negotiate directly with the state Legislature to put drilling operations closer.

The current patchwork of deals prohibits drilling within 200 miles of Tampa Bay, which has preserved an area off the Pinellas County coast called Lease Sale Area 181 that energy experts believe is rich in oil reserves. As recently as 2001, Bush staunchly opposed drilling in Area 181, which is why so many drilling opponents are angry with the compromise.

"There's no flip-flopping," Bush told reporters. "There are two approaches. One is to be politically correct, and basically be ineffective, or to have a chance to influence events and to enhance our position."

Advocates of the compromise, including Bush, argue that the force of the national energy debate has changed in recent years, making the all-out ban on Florida's coastline an unrealistic goal. And recent hurricanes in the gulf have shown how vulnerable the nation's energy network is for having oil rigs concentrated along the coasts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Still, Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group says Bush is backtracking.

"I don't think it's a misrepresentation to say he's retreating from his previous staunch opposition to any drilling off the coast of Florida," Ferrulo said.

"To now be pushing for a 100-mile buffer zone, and considering trading that protection and allowing drilling in areas off Florida's coast beyond 100 miles, is a clear retreat."

Ferrulo said it's meaningless for Bush to advocate a drilling ban off the Atlantic Coast because the oil industry has never expressed interest in that area.

After weeks of negotiations with members of Congress and Interior Department officials in his brother's administration, Bush said Tuesday, it was fantasy to stake out a position of blanket opposition to offshore oil drilling.

With the current moratorium due to expire in January 2007, Bush said Tuesday: "Right now, we have the whole area at risk."

Reminded that some want a total prohibition on drilling in the eastern gulf, Bush said: "Sure they do. That's great. I'll talk to the fairy godmother about it."

Bush's position puts him at odds not only with Democrats, but some Republicans in the state's congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

"We may have a little different strategies as time goes on, because we're under tremendous pressure from those who want to drill," Martinez said.

"But I continue to stay firm in my position that we cannot allow any drilling in the gulf."

Martinez added: "It's not the right thing for our environment, it's not the right thing for Florida economically and frankly it's not the right thing for the military." Florida's Panhandle is dotted with major military installations.

The League of Conservation Voters accused Bush of a "sudden reversal." U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, and state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, two candidates for governor, accused Bush of reversing his position.

On Capitol Hill, Florida Republicans continued talks with Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee, in hopes of striking a deal acceptable to most Florida Republicans.

Pombo spoke with several Floridians, and Bush remains involved as well, said Jennifer Zuccarelli, a spokeswoman for Pombo's committee.

But several sticking points remain.

At the moment, it's not clear how the compromise will get through Congress. An attempt to add it to a larger energy bill moving through Pombo's committee was scotched when an amendment on natural gas was added last month.

Plus, the Floridians have other goals: They would like their deal to include wording that would exempt Florida waters from an inventory of offshore oil and gas reserves that was mandated in another bill passed earlier this year. They also want to nullify existing but untapped drilling rights in several areas that lie within the proposed 125-mile buffer.

"My goal is to ensure that Florida and other states control their offshore resources to the greatest extent possible," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, who has led the negotiations with Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs. "These discussions are ongoing and I am hopeful that we will reach an agreement that benefits Florida and which the Florida delegation can support."

One option for the proposed deal may be to attach it to a budget reconciliation bill expected to reach the House later this fall. The budget bill, which also is expected to allow oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is an attractive option because procedurally it cannot be filibustered in the Senate.

That means Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Martinez, who oppose the Florida deal, would have a tougher time stopping it.

Also Thursday, Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, persuaded chairman John Warner, R-Va., and ranking member Carl Levin, D-Mich., to ask the Pentagon whether drilling in the eastern gulf would jeopardize Air Force and Navy training there.

With a brother in the White House and an overwhelmingly Republican congressional delegation, Bush is in an influential position, Ferrulo said: "If he was pounding the podium demanding no new drilling in the eastern gulf, his voice would be heard loud and clear."

Bush was dismissive of his critics, including an environmental group and Democrats in the state Legislature.

"I don't know who the League of Conservation Voters are," Bush said, "and House Democrats, here? I'm glad to see they're up and taking nourishment."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified October 7, 2005, 01:51:07]

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