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Senate oil drilling plan appears DOA

Published July 14, 2006

WASHINGTON - It doesn't do a thing for the East Coast. It doesn't ask any state but Florida to contribute anything. And most of all, the new Senate compromise on offshore drilling doesn't have a snowball's chance in Tampa of surviving the U.S. House, Republican members from Florida say.

A day after Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Senate leaders triumphantly announced a deal to open much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas exploration, while keeping rigs more than 200 miles from Florida's west coast, the state's House Republicans met with Martinez on Thursday and came away feeling that the Senate plan is politically dangerous for some of them and practically unworkable.

But if passed by the Senate, the deal may provide a platform for compromise between the two chambers, several said. Last month, the House passed its own bipartisan bill that would allow coastal states to keep drilling as far as 100 miles off their coasts, with more extensive protections for Florida's Gulf Coast.

"The Martinez bill is a lot different, but I give the senator a lot of credit for having gotten as far as he did with the Senate, so I think that is a good start," Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said after a one-hour meeting with Martinez and most of the state's 18 House Republicans.

"But there are some differences that have to be reconciled with the House bill, and I believe the House bill gives more protection."

While the House members agreed as a group they would present a hopeful front and were quick to laud the promise of compromise, individually they were less optimistic.

The Senate plan deals only with the Gulf Coast of Florida and provides no protections for the Atlantic Coast or the Florida Straits. Although there are no current plans to drill off the state's east coast, where the water gets very deep very quickly, it would be politically tough for east coast lawmakers to support any deal that doesn't include their beaches.

By contrast, the offshore drilling bill the House passed last month would affect the entire U.S. coast, allowing states to choose to keep drilling as far as 100 miles offshore or permit it as close as 3 miles. Fourteen Florida members voted for it.

For Florida's west coast beaches, from the Big Bend south to Naples, both plans offer meaty protection, thanks to the willingness of both chambers not to tinker with the eastern gulf military training zone, where the Navy and Air Force conduct testing and live-fire exercises.

Both plans would ban drilling in that zone, which extends 234 miles west of Tampa Bay. The difference is the Senate's protections would expire in 2022, while the House version would require an act of Congress to change.

But several House members said it's unfair for the Senate to continue blocking drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the shores of most other coastal states - including those that want it, like Virginia - while asking only Florida to agree to drilling.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Martinez oppose the House bill's provision to allow state legislatures to decide whether to drill within 100 miles of shore. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, and other House Democrats remain noncommittal on the Senate proposal. Environmentalists say neither plan offers adequate protection from potential pollution.

Nelson has said the deal Martinez struck with Senate leaders is promising, but he's not yet committed to supporting it.

Typically, similar bills passed by the House and the Senate are reconciled in a conference committee, then sent back to both chambers.

Nelson, Martinez and other senators worry they wouldn't like what emerges, and Senate rules make it difficult to use parliamentary procedure to block bills approved in conference.

To ease those concerns, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he would ask House leaders to take up exactly what the Senate passes, but that's highly unusual and highly unlikely, members said.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has urged the senators and House members to reach an agreement. He supported the House bill.

A failure to find an agreement between the House and Senate versions soon means Congress will be unlikely to send any offshore drilling compromise to President Bush this year.

That would force Florida's delegation to continue scrapping for coastal protections next year.

Thursday, Martinez suggested that the Senate deal could be tweaked to answer House concerns.

"There may be some way to fix it," Martinez said after the meeting. "We need to be all on the same place. The governor's someplace, I'm someplace, and there are three different places in that room."

[Last modified July 14, 2006, 02:49:27]

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