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Drilling ban upheld - barely

After Florida marshals other coastal states, the House votes, 217-203, to preserve a ban on drilling offshore for natural gas.

Published May 19, 2006

WASHINGTON - The U.S. House narrowly preserved a decades-old ban on offshore drilling late Thursday night. But the tight vote offered further proof that Florida's ability to keep energy exploration far off its shores forever is growing more tenuous.

By a vote of 217-203, the House accepted an amendment by Florida Reps. Adam Putnam, Jim Davis and others to strip a provision from the Interior Department spending bill that would have lifted a 23-year-old congressional moratorium on drilling for natural gas offshore.

Had the Putnam amendment failed, it would have been the first step toward permitting drilling as close as 9 miles from Florida's gulf coast and 3 miles from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

"There were no hearings on this. Let's make a decision based on what is the truth vs. fiction vs. opinion, what is real, what is safe for the environment," Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who first put the moratorium into an appropriations bill, implored in a final appeal.

"This is the right thing to do - let's let the House work its will through the appropriate process."

Florida lawmakers have worked together through the years to block gas and oil exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. But with oil prices topping $70 a barrel and natural gas prices having tripled in the past five years, the political pressure to drill is enormous.

This attempt to lift the moratorium was the most aggressive assault on the state's position yet. "This is the beginning of the debate, folks, that you've all been avoiding," said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., author of the provision. "This debate has been avoided year after year ... while the crisis has continued to skyrocket."

His measure still would have needed the Senate's approval, and a presidential moratorium protects the same waters through 2012. But for the first time it would have put the House on record as supporting near-shore drilling, a major policy shift.

Drilling is allowed off only a handful of gulf states and parts of California and Alaska. Even a year ago, the notion that Congress might lift the drilling ban for the entire nation was unthinkable, and some members of the Florida delegation say they realize they can't hold out forever.

In arguing for his amendment, Putnam, R-Bartow, said Floridians "are in the process of negotiating a compromise solution to this problem."

Nothing specific has been proposed. A deal to open much of the eastern gulf to drilling while keeping rigs 100 to 150 miles offshore died last year.

"This particular issue is one that has obviously reached critical mass," Putnam said. "We recognize our obligation as Floridians as major energy consumers, that we have an obligation to review our previous position, to recognize the improvements in technology, but frankly, 3 miles off our coast is an unacceptable alternative."

The Floridians marshaled Democrats and Republicans from other coastal states, as well as others who said the nation should focus on conservation and alternative energy, not drilling.

Against them were oil-state lawmakers and those from states whose economies have been hit by high natural gas prices, including those dependent on agriculture and manufacturing. "I don't think it's fair to 280-million Americans to deny them access to resources that belong to all them," said Ralph Regula, R-Ohio.

Peterson argued that "we have lost millions of jobs because of high energy costs and we will lose many millions more. Natural gas is what can keep America competitive until we can get a handle on the other technologies that can replace oil."

Davis, D-Tampa, countered that "this is about jobs. Florida's beaches are a critical part of our economy."

The vote on the Putnam amendment wasn't held until 10 p.m., but lawmakers sparred over offshore drilling throughout the daylong debate on the $25.9-billion Interior spending bill.

At times it got testy. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, a supporter of offshore drilling, charged that the nation's energy policy is "in the grip of an environmental Taliban."

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., accused drilling proponents of making "a play to the oil companies."

"These same people would tell you that if there's oil right under this Capitol to drill for it," he said. "My God. Can't the leadership of this Congress understand that it's not just about oil and gas, it's about a lot of other values?"

After several Florida members mooned on about their "pristine coast" and the "devastation" that pollution from drilling could cause, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, couldn't keep quiet any longer.

"My colleagues in California and Florida think only they have beaches," he said. "We have beaches. You cannot point to one beach in Texas that has been ruined by oil and natural gas."

As the vote neared, Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, reminded House colleagues from other states that many of their parents have retired to her district.

"Pick up that phone," she advised them, "call your mom and dad, and listen to what they have to say."

[Last modified May 19, 2006, 05:52:42]

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