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How any chance of an oil deal died

With no unified counterproposal to offer, the Florida delegation ended up able to do little to stand in the way of gulf drilling.

By WES ALLISON
Published July 1, 2006



WASHINGTON — Adam Putnam, Florida’s youngest and highest-ranking U.S. representative, was exasperated. A historic vote on opening the nation’s coasts to oil and natural gas drilling was just 48 hours away, and his Florida colleagues were squabbling like seagulls over bread crumbs.

He rubbed his face with his hands, then leaned back into the conference table in a Capitol meeting room and eyed his colleagues one more time.

Time is running out, he said. Florida is going to get rolled. What is it that you want?

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said compromising was foolish; Florida would beat this the way it always had. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, reminded the others of his own proposal, giving Florida 260 miles of buffer on the West coast and 150 miles everywhere else. A great deal, but politically dead.

Some urged their colleagues to take the deal Putnam had negotiated to keep drilling as much as 100 miles off the coast. Others wanted to wait and hear from Florida’s two U.S. senators.

The buzzer rang to announce a round of votes on the House floor, and the members filtered out.

“So where are we?’’ Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said as her colleagues left. “We’re all getting up and walking away?’’

Pretty much, yes.

***

Florida’s congressional delegation knew for months that House leaders were bent on opening more of the nation’s outercontinental shelf to drilling, and rising gas prices were providing momentum. But as a group, the delegation misread the strength of its opposition and didn’t get serious about trying to mitigate the threat until it was too late.

Last week, the House passed the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act, which would allow rigs as close as 50 miles offshore, while giving states the option of voting to keep it as far as 100 miles offshore or as close as 3 miles.

Lawmakers and aides involved in crafting the bill, which passed easily with bipartisan support, say the Florida delegation’s inability to find consensus and articulate a plausible compromise — until the last minute — sapped their bargaining power.

It also ensured that, in the absence of an affirmative plan from Florida, the rest of the House was happy to create one for them.

“If you had a proposal from them six months ago, it would have changed the debate,’’ said House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who led the bill to passage. “But where we are right now, this is the best deal I can get Florida.

“Florida’s position is, 'We don’t want anything.’ That is not an option.’’

The drive for a deal on offshore drilling began last summer, after hurricanes Katrina and Rita crippled oil and gas operations in the central and western gulf and supplies got tight.

Believing that drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico was only a matter of time, two Floridians on the House energy committee, Reps. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, began negotiating then with Pombo for a deal that would open much of the gulf to drilling, in exchange for permanent protections.

In November, after months of back and forth, Pombo tried to include it on a budget bill. The deal was generous by today’s standards: Drilling would be prohibited within 125 miles of the coast, unless the state Legislature agreed to permit it closer.

Gov. Jeb Bush supported the deal, as did a sizeable portion of the state’s congressional delegation.

But several Floridians, led by Davis, who is running for governor, and Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, who has a tough re-election fight, opposed it, as did several fellow Republicans. Some thought 125 miles was too close; others worried about giving the state Legislature the power to permit drilling even closer.

House leaders couldn’t risk losing votes on the budget bill, so they yanked the oil deal.

The Floridians would never get it back.

***

In the months since that first proposal — known within the delegation as Pombo I — the political atmosphere for an amicable ending only got worse.

Gas prices remain near $3 a gallon. Experts say drilling off Florida will do nothing to ease prices, but Congress was eager to show it was trying to ease the energy crunch.

Manufacturing, labor, agribusiness and chemicalmakers, along with the oil and gas lobby, were pushing for more access to the continental shelf, telling lawmakers that high natural gas prices were costing the U.S. jobs and hurting farmers.

In May, members from Florida, California and other coastal states barely defeated an attempt to allow natural gas drilling as close as 3 miles from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and 9 miles from Florida’s gulf coast.

Florida members declared it a wakeup call, but until last week’s vote was at hand, few were willing to declare support for a politically realistic buffer.

Dan Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida who follows the delegation, said members were in a slippery spot: Agree to limited drilling and face charges they compromised on a fundamental value for the state, or resist any compromise and, as a result, get even less.

“The public opinion in Florida is we don’t want any drilling, 150 miles or 100 miles, and the public opinion is pretty strong on this,’’ Smith said.

Pro-drilling lawmakers said the Florida delegation’s quandary was apparent. “No one wanted to say, 'Okay, 125, 150,’ or whatever,’’ Pombo said. “They would have been criticized. Unfortunately, some of the ones who were the biggest critics never engaged at all.’’

These included Davis, a hardliner on drilling who had proposed a bill identical to the one Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez had offered in the Senate: Keep drilling 260 miles off the West coast and 150 miles off the Panhandle and Atlantic coasts, with no provisions for the Florida Legislature to allow drilling any closer.

No Republicans signed onto it, which Democrats and environmental lobbyists blamed on their unwillingness to aide Davis’ gubernatorial campaign. It never had a chance of passing the House, but some say the delegation should have used it as a starting point for dealing with Pombo.

“We could have done it more forcefully,’’ said Athan Manuel, director of lands programs for the Sierra Club. “When you’re dealing with someone like Pombo and (others) who are fire-breathers and true believers on this stuff, you’ve got to have unanimity.’’

Resources committee members who negotiated the drilling deal said Florida would have had far more leverage had its delegation been able to promise a block of 15 or so votes early in the process. But the Floridians were voicing a range of concerns.

Some were most interested in protecting the military training areas. Others wanted more distance between rigs and the shore. And the delegation was at odds on whether state legislatures should have any power to decide the future.“If somebody could have authoritatively spoken (for Florida’s members), or the delegation would say, 'This is where what we’re willing to do,’ absolutely that would have been effective,’’ said Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., who helped craft the bill. ''You’re always better off when you’re at the table.’’

Putnam, the fifth-ranking House Republican, began negotiating with Pombo in May after House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., put him in charge of bringing energy legislation to the floor by the end of June.

Although Putnam kept in touch with Florida Republicans, and interest in reaching a deal had grown, many were unhappy with what emerged.

The buffer would be 100 miles unless a state legislature voted to permit drilling 50 miles out. As an incentive, those that allowed it inside 100 miles would get 50 to 75 percent of the royalties energy companies pay for drilling rights, which could total billions of dollars.

The delegation met first to discuss the deal on Tuesday, but reached no consensus on a counteroffer. They met again Wednesday with Nelson and Martinez, who expressed disdain for the House bill and vowed to do better in the Senate.

But by then, co-sponsors of the new Pombo bill were predicting easy passage in House. Whatever edge Florida once had was gone.

Some, including Davis, were content to yield almost nothing. If they failed to beat the Pombo bill, they would leave the fight to the Senate. Others wanted to trade their votes for whatever final concessions they could.

The bill’s sponsors didn’t need Florida’s votes to win, but they wanted big numbers to send a strong message to the Senate that it’s time to loosen restrictions on offshore drilling.

'’I think everybody at this table would rather not be supportive of what they’ve come up with. But is that realistic? Will it be all or nothing?’’ Bilirakis told his colleagues at the meeting. ''I don’t want to cast a vote for any drilling off the coast, but where are we?’’

When the second meeting adjourned Wednesday afternoon, the Floridians sent Putnam back to the Republican leadership with two proposals:

The first would ban drilling in the Navy and Air Force training zone in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which extends 234 miles off Tampa Bay and runs from the Panhandle to the Keys.

Pombo agreed. The bill already called for allowing the Defense Department to veto drilling projects in that area, and the military zone does not include most of Lease Sale Area 181, a gas-rich patch of gulf that energy companies have coveted for years.

It was a big victory for the Floridians, but there is no guarantee this provision will survive. Senate leaders have opposed blocking the training zone to drilling, saying the secretaries of defense and interior should be able to work it out themselves.

The second request was essentially the deal the Floridians rejected back in November: A 125-mile drilling buffer, with no state action needed to keep it intact.

Pombo opposed that one, but he agreed to offer it as an amendment to the drilling bill, knowing what would happen. It failed spectacularly, by almost 190 votes.

***

When the voting on the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act was finished Thursday night, it had passed with a whopping 232 votes, including 40 Democrats and 14 Floridians, most lured by the protections afforded by the military training zone.


Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, hailed the passage Friday, and said he’s working on his own offshore drilling proposal he hopes to pass this month. Florida’s senators have more procedural power to block an onerous bill than their colleagues in the House, but Domenici’s sights are set squarely on the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

If a bill passes the Senate, it must be reconciled with the House version, then sent back to each chamber for final approval, and one more shot at finding consensus.

[Last modified July 1, 2006, 19:50:28]


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