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Offshore drilling separates hopefuls

Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist opposes rigs within 125 miles of Florida's coast, while Tom Gallagher supports the idea.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published November 7, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - The debate over whether oil drilling rigs should be allowed within 125 miles of Florida's beaches has divided the two Republican candidates for governor.

Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher sides with Gov. Jeb Bush, who supports the 125-mile compromise. Attorney General Charlie Crist, usually a reliable supporter of Bush's policies, opposes the drilling deal.

"I don't think it's good for Florida," Crist said. "I have enormous, enormous respect for the governor, as you know. But we just disagree on this issue."

Gallagher defended his support for Bush's compromise.

"I am unalterably dead set against drilling off Florida's shores," Gallagher said. "Recognizing that we don't have any kind of permanent agreement, we're kind of hanging out there."

Gallagher and Crist are both seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2006. Both hope to succeed Bush, who is completing his second and final term.

Bush has backed the 125-mile limit as a way to write into federal law a long-term guarantee of protection of Florida's coastline from drilling. But critics note the proposal would allow drilling in parts of the eastern gulf that have been off limits, and they have accused Bush of retreating from his previous position of opposing all drilling.

The governor says a 125-mile limit is better protection for Florida than the presidential and congressional moratoriums that are due to expire in 2007 and 2012.

Bush said these might not be extended because of growing support for more domestic energy production.

Congress could vote as early as next week on the 125-mile limit, championed by Rep. Richard Pombo, a California Republican who chairs the House Resources Committee.

The panel approved it as part of a massive budget bill.

Environmentalist Clay Henderson of the Florida Conservation Alliance, the state affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters, said the candidates' stands on offshore drilling will influence some voters in 2006.

"It's always been a litmus test issue in Florida and the position for most people, for most years, has been no drilling, no way, no how. It's always been very simple," said Henderson, a Democrat.

The 125-mile limit that Bush supports "looks like offshore oil drilling," Crist, a St. Petersburg resident, told the Associated Press in a phone interview. "I'm a gulf coast guy and I'm against it."

Crist's opposition to the 125-mile boundary is in line with Florida Democrats in Congress including Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, a candidate for governor.

Davis' opponent, state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, also is opposed, as are both of the state's U.S. senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson.

Crist's position brought praise from a group that strongly opposes any drilling.

"Crist has it right," said Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "Crist is echoing Jeb's position when he first took office, which is, no drilling off the coast of Florida - anywhere."

The 125-mile limit has divided the Florida congressional delegation. Republicans such as Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers and Mark Foley of West Palm Beach oppose it, and say they will vote against the budget bill if it includes the drilling provision.

Supporters include Mike Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Tom Feeney of Oviedo, Cliff Stearns of Ocala and Jeff Miller of Chumuckla near Pensacola, whose western Panhandle district would be closest to offshore drilling platforms.

If enough Republicans from Florida or other coastal states, particularly California, threaten to oppose the budget bill because of the deal, House leaders are likely to take it out.

Republican leaders spent the weekend counting votes and could decide as early as today whether Pombo's deal survives.

--Times staff writer Wes Allison in Washington contributed to this report.

--Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified November 7, 2005, 15:31:46]


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