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Bill rekindles offshore drilling fight

Published February 8, 2006

WASHINGTON - A week after Florida's U.S. senators offered a deal to keep the state's Gulf Coast largely free from oil and gas rigs, the chairman of the Senate energy committee proposed just the opposite, filing a bill to open a vast swath of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling.

Republican Sen. Pete Domenici's bill, which was introduced Tuesday, would open most of a Vermont-sized chunk of the gulf known as Lease Sale Area 181 to oil and gas exploration, bringing rigs within 100 miles of the Florida Panhandle and about 200 miles of Tampa Bay.

It also sets the parameters for the latest round of battles over off-shore drilling as lawmakers from Florida and other coastal states try to fend off renewed assaults brought on by rising energy prices.

"This bill will not interfere with the viewscapes from the coast, the environment or the military activity in the area," Domenici said in a statement. "Opening this area is our best opportunity to bring a lot of gas to market swiftly and make a real difference with supply and price."

The bill would require the Interior Department to issue leases for Area 181 within one year of passage, opening access to almost 5-trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or enough to heat nearly 5-million homes for 15 years, the government said.

Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and his Republican counterpart, Mel Martinez, filed a bill that would prevent any drilling within 260 miles off Florida's west coast and 150 miles off the Panhandle.

It would allow drilling in about one-fifth of Area 181, amounting to some 700,000 acres, and put the rest off-limits.

Unlike previous attempts at compromise, the Nelson-Martinez bill has early support from much of the state's legislative delegation and some environmental groups.

Domenici filed his bill with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a fellow New Mexican and the leading Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

It would open almost all of Area 181 except the so-called "stovepipe," a narrow section that comes within 20 miles of Pensacola.

A sliver of the eastern edge of Area 181 that falls inside the military training zone, where the military conducts exercises and tests weapons, also would be off-limits without the Pentagon's permission.

Martinez, who serves on the energy committee with Domenici, said he looks "forward to trying to reconcile the differences" between their bills.

"Without a greater buffer and without permanency, the march to our coast will continue, and that is unacceptable," he said.

Domenici told Martinez last month that he intended to file the bill, so Martinez and Nelson rushed to file theirs first.

Domenici has sought to win access to Area 181 before. Last year, he tried to add it to the Senate energy bill, but Nelson stopped him with a filibuster. The Florida senators will explore similar tactics this year, and congressional aides said it's unclear if Domenici could win the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

Some lawmakers from oil states have insisted that any offshore drilling legislation boost the states' share of government drilling royalties, and the Domenici-Bingaman bill doesn't do that.

Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said Domenici's bill may even have an upside: It brings the issue to the fore.

"If the energy committee chairman wants to make the issue of drilling off Florida an agenda item, so be it; let's talk about it," McLaughlin said.

Unlike their counterparts in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, where drilling is big business, Florida lawmakers have long opposed exploration in the eastern gulf for fear of polluting the state's beaches.

Allowing drilling within 100 miles of shore, as Domenici proposes, would still require an infrastructure to support it, McLaughlin said, "whether it's pipelines, storage facilities, tankers, barges, what have you - the accidents and the spills will follow."

[Last modified February 8, 2006, 01:16:09]

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