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Florida oil drilling debate turns testy

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published June 15, 2006

WASHINGTON - They spelled her name wrong. They accused her boss of holding the nation's energy policy hostage. One demanded that the White House "get its head out of the Florida sands," and start protecting America's economy from runaway energy costs.

At the House Resources Committee hearing Wednesday on offshore oil and gas drilling, it was a tough day to be from Florida.

Among the witnesses was Colleen M. Castille, secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, a staunch opponent of allowing drilling rigs off Florida's coast.

It didn't matter a whisker that Castille said neither she nor Florida Gov. Jeb Bush opposed the bill being examined at the hearing, which would allow states, not the federal government, to decide whether to allow oil or gas exploration within 125 miles of their coasts.

What mattered was that in the intramural politics that has Congress in tangles over how to expand the nation's energy supply, the biggest barrier to more offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has always been Florida.

Florida, with nearly two dozen House members united against drilling. Florida, with 27 electoral votes, requiring special care and attention from presidential candidates.

Florida, with more shoreline than any state but Alaska.

Florida, the only Gulf Coast state that sees offshore drilling as an economic liability to be fought, not a way to exploit an asset.

Now gasoline is nearly $3 a gallon and American industry is squealing about high natural gas prices. Yet Florida insists on keeping rigs at least 100 miles off its coast. Preferably 125.

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., opened the salvo. He sponsored a bill to allow natural gas drilling as close as 20 miles from shore. Block everything within 100 miles of Florida's west coast, he told Castille, and you block much of the eastern gulf and its enormous potential for natural gas.

For decades, the state's politicians, Democrats and Republicans, have worried that pollution from offshore rigs could sully beaches.

"What are you afraid of?" Peterson barked, noting that many countries allow drilling but still have clean beaches.

Earlier, he said the White House "should get its head out of the Florida sands," a reference to President Bush's commitment to keep rigs at least 100 miles from Florida shores. Now he focused on Castille, seated at a table facing the committee, her place marked with a placard labeled Colline Castille.

"Your boss, Gov. Jeb Bush, has kept us from an adequate energy supply in this country. I find it unacceptable that we have been negotiating with one state," Peterson scolded.

"For Florida to be playing scare tactics about energy exploration beyond its shores, we should be past that."

Next was Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from the bayou country of Louisiana, where oil drilling has long been a friend. He called it a clean industry, a good industry, and muttered something about passing a "Hypocrisy Act," to punish states - like, ahem, Florida - that burn lots of gas but refuse to produce any.

"Just so you know," he told Castille warmly, there are lots of Castilles in his area of coastal Louisiana.

"Just so you know," Castille responded, "my whole family is from Louisiana ... Arcadiana Village is my (family's) home."

Melancon nodded his approval. "We'll be kind."

Castille said Gov. Bush and the Florida congressional delegation have been working with House leaders since last fall to open 8.5-million acres of the eastern gulf, in a region known as Lease-Sale Area 181, while keeping rigs 100 miles off the Panhandle. Those efforts continue.

Time and again, she said Florida wants to be part of the nation's comprehensive energy policy, and she reminded the committee that the state Legislature had allocated $100-million toward boosting the use of alternative fuels.

It wasn't enough. Peterson and Melancon especially took exception to Castille's characterizations of the warm gulf waters off Florida's coast as Florida's waters.

"How can Florida dictate to America where we drill when the natural resources belong to the United States?" Melancon snapped.

"Where you're from doesn't matter."

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