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Florida's senators inch toward oil drilling agreement

Published July 12, 2006

WASHINGTON - Florida Sen. Mel Martinez and other Senate negotiators said Tuesday that they are close to reaching a deal to open vast swaths of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration.

Senate leaders have been pushing all year to open most of Lease-Sale Area 181, a gas rich, 3.6-million-acre area of the gulf about 100 miles off Pensacola.

They have been stymied by Martinez, a Republican, and Florida's other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, who have opposed drilling so close to the shores. But the effort to reach a compromise gained new urgency just before the Independence Day recess, when the U.S. House passed a sweeping bill that calls for opening all U.S. waters past 50 miles to energy exploration.

Martinez met again Tuesday afternoon with Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"We're closer," Martinez said afterward. "We made progress, but I don't think we're where we can make an announcement."

Florida's senators want several concessions to ensure that the state's coast will be protected from pollution in the event of an oil spill. Chief among them is distance. While Domenici's committee has passed a bill that would keep rigs 100 miles off the Panhandle, Martinez wants a buffer of at least 125 miles. Nelson wants 150 miles, but has signaled he might accept 125.

Nelson is not involved in negotiations, though he and Martinez discuss it regularly. Senate aides and members say Frist has no qualms about bringing the bill to the floor without Nelson's support. Nelson has vowed to filibuster the bill if it doesn't meet his requirements, but sponsors say they believe they have the 60 votes needed to break it.

Frist doesn't, however, want to proceed without Martinez. They've been meeting regularly with Domenici and two pro-drilling Louisiana senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Bobby Vitter. The deal being hashed out calls for increasing royalty payments to states that allow offshore drilling, a major requirement for Landrieu, Vitter and other Gulf Coast senators. Martinez wants other provisions, generally supported by Nelson, that include:

* A plan for the federal government to buy or trade for the 90-plus areas within 125 miles of Florida's coast where drilling rights were sold years ago.* Assurances that drilling won't take place within the military's training zone, a key part of the House-passed bill, which extends to 234 miles west of Tampa Bay.* And a ban on near-shore drilling that extends at least to 2017, though the Floridians have asked for protections through 2022.

Martinez said he discussed these provisions Monday with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the governor would back them.

The key sticking point remains distance. Domenici wants a buffer of only 100 miles from Florida's coast, while Martinez said Tuesday that under "125 miles is a deal-breaker."

Vitter said the extra 25 miles may be acceptable to pro-drilling forces. It would close off almost 2-million more acres than Domenici has proposed, but the deal also would open a huge tract of the gulf south of Area 181, known as Lease-Sale Area 182, that is currently off-limits to drilling. That area is more than 200 miles off Tampa Bay.

Accepting 125 miles is preferable to striking no deal, Vitter said, because without it "there's no forward momentum" on offshore drilling.

Two weeks ago, a bill easily passed the House, with 14 Floridians voting for it, that would open up all U.S. waters to drilling past 50 miles offshore. States could opt to restrict it as far as 100 miles, or choose to allow drilling as close as 3 miles. That bill won strong bipartisan support because of high energy prices, but it has virtually no chance of passing the Senate. The Senate deal is much more narrow, affecting only the eastern gulf. But environmentalists and some senators fear more sweeping legislation could emerge when the House and Senate reconcile their versions.

"It's so close," Domenici said. Martinez "just has to decide where Florida is. I keep reading the tea leaves about Florida."

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 06:20:09]

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