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Drilling bans take a hard hit

A bipartisan House vote would allow exploration closer to shore and create rewards for states. The Senate still must weigh in.

Published June 29, 2006

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a sweeping measure Thursday that would upend decades of restrictions on energy exploration off the nation’s coasts, giving states broad power to allow drilling close to shore and financially rewarding those that do.

Florida’s congressional delegation wrangled a last-minute protection from the bill that will keep drilling more than 200 miles off the state’s west coast, but an amendment to keep drilling 125 miles off the Panhandle and Atlantic coasts was crushed by lawmakers more concerned with high energy prices than offending Florida’s sensibilities.

The strong bipartisan vote sent a sharp message to the U.S. Senate, which has yet to consider an offshore drilling bill, that lawmakers in the House believe Americans are ready to set aside environmental concerns in favor of more domestic oil and natural gas production.

The Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act, which passed 232 to 187, with 14 Floridians voting in favor, would allow oil and gas exploration 50 miles offshore. State legislatures may vote to ban drilling up to 100 miles from shore, but they must renew the bans every five years.

States also could vote to allow drilling as close as 3 miles from shore, a controversial provision that effectively ends the 23-year-old federal ban on near-shore energy exploration. Those that do choose to drill within 100 miles stand to gain billions of dollars in energy company royalty payments over the years, a strong incentive for cash-strapped states.

“This is not a perfect bill. No bill that leaves here … ever is, but it gives Florida protections she does not enjoy, and it gives Floridians control of Florida’s coast,’’ said Rep. Adam Putnam, the Bartow Republican who helped negotiate the bill with House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

''This is a huge step forward from where we are, and the bottom line of this debate is if we do nothing … bad things do happen.’’
Opponents, including several Florida members and major environmental groups, argued the bill would allow drilling too close to shore to protect beaches, marshes and estuaries from industrial pollution and spills.

Even drilling for natural gas, which is colorless and odorless, brings to the sea floor tons of mud tainted with heavy metals, and gas pipelines can damage marine habitat, government reports have found.

''Our beaches, our coastline is critical to who we are as Floridians, it’s what brings us to Florida, it’s what keeps us in Florida,’’ said Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa. “We do not want to sacrifice our beaches, our coastline, our environment to oil and gas drilling.

''What’s at stake here? Just a few months of natural gas and oil. This is not the price Florida should pay.’’

The bill is far less generous toward Florida than a deal the Florida delegation rejected late last year that would have kept drilling rigs at least 125 miles out to sea, and which would have forced the Legislature to act only if it wanted to allow drilling closer to shore.

But the Floridians who backed the Pombo-Putnam bill Thursday, including most of the 18 Republican members, said the bill offers the best protections possible at a time when the impetus to drill has never been stronger, and that in many ways is better than what the state has now. 

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also supports it.

While a hodgepodge of federal bans currently protect the gulf coast from drilling, the state’s eastern and southern coasts have no safeguards beyond 3 miles; this would allow the Legislature to keep rigs 100 miles offshore.

Many also liked giving the state Legislature, rather than some future Congress, the ability to decide whether to allow drilling inside that buffer.

“Would you rather have Florida offshore decisions made by a state senator from Clearwater or by a drill-happy congressman from Texas?’’ Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, said during debate. ''We don’t have the luxury of doing nothing.’’

The bill affects the entire U.S. coast, although near-shore drilling already is permitted off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of California and Alaska.

For years, such a sweeping measure was politically untenable thanks to bipartisan opposition from coastal state lawmakers, particularly from California, which has the largest House delegation, and Florida, which has the fourth-largest.

But high energy prices and an extensive campaign by a wide range of interests has eroded that coalition. Those lobbying for the bill Thursday included labor unions, which are aligned with Democrats, Republican-leaning manufacturing and business interests, and farmers and agribusiness, who have friends in both parties.

Forty Democrats joined 193 Republicans, including many from coastal states, in passing the bill.

 “This bill is an important step toward achieving the goal of developing our natural energy resources,’’ said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., who has voted to block drilling in the past, and whose comments were echoed by many colleagues Thursday.

“Our addiction to foreign oil … is greater today than ever before. It’s a threat to our national security and we must address that threat.’’

Last month, House Floridians and Californians narrowly beat a proposal to allow natural gas drilling   3 miles off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and 9 miles off Florida’s gulf coast. That emboldened pro-drilling forces and convinced many anti-drilling lawmakers that it was time to cut a deal.

Putnam, the state’s highest-ranking House member, brokered the bill with Pombo and others this month, then tried to sell his Florida colleagues on it. But many balked, and the delegation met twice this week to hash out a compromise they could live with.

Wednesday afternoon, the delegation agreed to seek two changes. One strengthened language to prevent drilling in the Navy and Air Force training zone in the eastern gulf, a vast region that extends 234 miles off Tampa Bay.

House leaders agreed to that change, because it still leaves open most of a gas-rich region of the gulf, called Lease-Sale Area 181, that energy companies have been eyeing for years. It also may not survive when the House reconciles its bill with whatever offshore drilling measure might pass the Senate, but allowing the change for now meant they could count on the support of several key Republicans, including Reps. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores and Jeff Miller, who represents the Panhandle.

''The military mission line is put into statute – anything east of that line in the Gulf of Mexico, there will be no drilling,’’ Young said during Thursday’s debate. ''Florida’s west coast is protected far and above where we had originally requested.’’

The second change, in the form of an amendment offered by Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and supported by most Floridians, would have kept drilling 125 miles off the nation’s coasts unless states voted to allow it closer.

The amendment would have changed the heart of the Putnam-Pombo bill and was crushed, 353 to 65, by lawmakers who said it didn’t go far enough to ease restrictions on drilling. Among them was Rep. Dave Weldon, a Republican from the Melbourne area, who said the extra 25 miles added too much buffer.

 “I think we need to explore that,’’ Weldon said. “Jeepers, I drive a hybrid vehicle, I drove up here in a hybrid vehicle, but we need fuel.’’

Despite Thursday’s passage, the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act is a ways from becoming law. The bill   moves to the Senate, where it faces filibuster threats from Florida’s two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, who don’t believe it offers adequate protections.

Senate leaders have been working with Nelson and Martinez in hopes of passing some version of a bill to expand offshore drilling this year, particularly in Area 181 the eastern gulf. Anything that passes the Senate must be reconciled with the House bill, which could be a daunting task.

Lawsuits also are likely over the constitutionality of allowing states, rather than the federal government, to decide whether to allow drilling in federal waters.

But Thursday’s vote offered the clearest proof yet that Congress has found new will to overhaul the conservative offshore drilling policies that has defined the past quarter-century, and that voting to put rigs off the nation’s beaches is no longer seen as politically fatal.

Florida members who supported the bill said they can only hope it survives, before Congress passes something worse.

’’Would I like to see more protections? Of course I would,’’ Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville said. '’But wishing it so does not make it so … I don’t want to sit back and wait and sit back and watch and find myself watching the sun rise through the silhouette of a drilling rig.’’


The vote on the Deep Oceans Energy Resources Act split the Florida delegation.

 Here’s how your members voted:

Aye: Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs; Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville; C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores; Adam Putnam, R-Bartow; Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville; Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami; Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami; Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo; Ric Keller, R-Orlando; John Mica, R-Winter Park; Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla; Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala; Dave Weldon, R-Indiatlantic; Allen Boyd, D-Monticello.
Nay: Jim Davis, D-Tampa; Mark Foley, R-Jupiter;  Katherine Harris, R-Longboat Key; Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami; Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale; Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville; Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; Kendrick Meek, D-Miami; Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston; Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.


[Last modified June 29, 2006, 22:59:35]

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