Drilling vote won't end fight

Lawmakers say the issue will be back and Florida's allies in Congress are feeling the heat to change their positions.

Published May 20, 2006

WASHINGTON - As the votes for ending a longstanding ban on drilling near the nation's shores ticked past 200, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami watched the tally board nervously and kept returning to the same thought: "We should have taken the deal.''

Unnerved by a narrow win in the U.S. House on Thursday night on a vote that would have allowed natural gas exploration just 9 miles from the state's Gulf Coast and 3 miles from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, several members of Florida's congressional delegation said they were eager to rejuvenate a compromise for protecting the state's waters that fell apart last year.

While the feeling isn't unanimous, many members said the slim margin of Thursday's vote was a clear sign that Florida politicians must recognize the fragility of their stance against any drilling within hundreds of miles of the state's coast and strike a deal, while they still can.

"Rarely in this process do you get a neon sign that says, 'Quit playing games, you better act now,' " said Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican. "And that's what we have."

The House voted 217-203 in favor of an amendment by Florida Reps. Adam Putnam, Jim Davis and others to strip a provision from the Interior Department appropriations bill that could have ended the congressional moratorium on natural gas drilling.

Although the Floridians prevailed with the aid of other coastal state lawmakers, particularly from California, Putnam said it was a temporary victory.

"The narrowness of the vote last night certainly ought to be a wake-up call for Floridians that the deal we had last year was a good deal, and Florida needs to take the next step and negotiate a permanent, responsible deal," said Putnam, R-Bartow. "We will not consistently win a vote like that."

The Floridians were close to striking a deal late last year with House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo that would have kept oil and gas drilling 100 to 150 miles from most of the nation's shores, including Florida's gulf coast.

That would have allowed drilling in much of the natural gas-rich region of the eastern gulf known as Lease-Sale Area 181, which is off-limits through next year.

But Democrats and some Republicans said there was no need to compromise, and Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., agreed.

Others opposed a provision in the Pombo compromise that would have given each coast-state legislature the power to decide whether to allow drilling as close as 20 miles from shore.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat, was among the Pombo bill's detractors. While she didn't endorse any specific plan, she said it is time for Florida to reconsider.

"Sadly, we've been forced into a position where we're not left with much choice," she said Friday. "And it's because of the fact that over the years the Republicans have not been willing to truly explore alternative energy and have had a one-note answer to our energy needs, and that obviously no longer works."

As gasoline flirts with $3 per gallon and natural gas prices remain high, members of Congress are under enormous pressure to increase domestic energy supplies.

While experts agree offshore drilling would not ease gasoline prices anytime soon, if at all, some say it could steady the natural gas market.

Currently, there are at least two-dozen active bills floating about Congress that would address offshore drilling, and most are geared toward permitting more of it, not less.

Consider, too, the changing numbers in Congress:

Forty-six House members who opposed a similar effort last year to lift the congressional moratorium on offshore drilling switched sides on Thursday.

They included Democrats and Republicans, mostly from rural and Rust Belt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota where energy costs are hurting manufacturing and raising the price of fertilizer, which is made with natural gas.

One convert was Rep. Dave Weldon, a Republican from the Melbourne area.

Among members of the Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the moratorium, 42 voted to uphold it last year. This year, only 24 did.

"That's a big shift," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, a senior committee member who first inserted the moratorium in the early 1980s. "And it's because of the high cost of energy."

And a handful of members who helped preserve the moratorium Thursday are co-sponsors of another bill offered by Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., to allow natural gas drilling as close as 20 miles from shore. That bill has passed the Resources Committee and is expected to reach the full House soon.

Young and Putnam said they worry they won't have the votes to stop that one, though it would be difficult to pass in the Senate.

As they scrambled to secure votes for Putnam's amendment this week, the Floridians faced tough opposition from agriculture interests, the oil and gas industry, chemical companies and labor unions.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers labeled it a key vote and urged lawmakers to defeat it.

So did the AFL-CIO, which sent House members a letter saying that preserving the moratorium "is a slap in the face of every union member who works in an industry that is losing business due to the high price of natural gas."

Among House Republican leaders, only Putman, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, and Deputy Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., backed it.

"I had a lot of members tell me, I am voting with you against my better judgment," Putnam said. "The only thing that got them was the 3 miles" to shore was too close.

Members said the next step is restarting talks with Pombo, although they never really died completely.

Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the House Resources Committee, said Pombo is still very much interesting in reaching a compromise.

"Chairman Pombo has been saying it's not a matter of if the moratorium disappears, but when. And the bigger issue is how do we give the states some say in what happens," Kennedy said. "The chairman prefers a comprehensive solution that provides the country with a framework that can balance the competing interests of different states."

First, however, the Floridians must balance their own competing interests.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Jupiter, who opposed the Pombo deal last year, said Friday he still opposes giving the state Legislature the power to allow drilling closer to shore.

And Davis, who is running for governor, said Thursday night's vote was a sign of strength, not weakness. "When's the last time the energy companies lost a fight in Congress?" he said Friday. "They don't lose many fights right now, and they lost this one last night."

Davis has proposed his own compromise, which would open part of the eastern gulf known as Lease-Sale Area 181 to drilling in return for a no-drilling line 150 miles from the Panhandle and 234 miles west of Tampa Bay. It has not won any Republican co-sponsors.

Sens. Martinez and Nelson have offered the same plan in the Senate, but it, too, has gone nowhere. A spokesman for Nelson said Friday the senators are negotiating with Senate leaders and still hope to strike a deal.

As the vote count climbed Thursday night, "what went through my mind was, 'we had better get a permanent solution to this,' " Young said. "If we have to got through this fight next year, we may well lose.