Senate says yes to gulf drilling plan

The bill would open 8.3-million acres to drilling, but set buffers of 125 miles off the Panhandle and 234 miles off Tampa Bay.

Published August 2, 2006

WASHINGTON - The Senate easily approved a plan for offshore drilling Tuesday night, sending the controversial issue into final negotiations with the House that are sure to be contentious.

The Senate bill would open millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration, but is still more restrictive than one approved by the House in June.

Senate leaders have been urging the House to accept their version without changes because of strong opposition, especially within the Florida delegation, for permitting drilling rigs too close to beaches.

On Tuesday, they maintained that position, but also made clear that the Senate would revisit drilling issues in future legislation, after the Florida protections are in place.

"This is the beginning, because Mr. and Mrs. America, you own millions of more acres of coastal lands," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee and author of the Senate bill.

"The precedent is going to be broken here ... and we're going to show that (drilling) can be done with no harm to anyone. Then we can move step by step to other areas."

The Senate bill, which passed 71 to 25, would open 8.3-million acres of the gulf, including most of Lease-Sale Area 181, southwest of the Florida Panhandle. It also would open the area directly south, known as Lease-Sale Area 182.

Both areas are now off-limits. Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, voted for the bill because drilling will not be allowed within 125 miles of the Panhandle or in the military's eastern gulf training zone, which extends to 234 miles off Tampa Bay. The protections would be good through 2022.

The Senate's bill is far less sweeping and far less friendly to drilling than the one the House passed in June.

That bill would open the entire U.S. coast to oil and gas exploration 50 miles from shore, though each state could choose to keep it as far away as 100 miles or permit it as close as 3 miles.

House and Senate negotiators now must reconcile the differences. House Republican leaders say the Senate bill is too limited, while Domenici and other Senate leaders say a broader bill would have trouble winning the Senate's okay.

"It really is a question of the House and people in the industry to decide if this is enough, is something they can live with, or hold out for a more perfect bill, and really end up with nothing," Martinez said.

Republican Sens. George Allen of Virginia, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Domenici and others said they will push the Senate to let states choose to open their shores to drilling. But the House must realize that pushing too hard, too fast could cost the gains they made Tuesday.

House leaders praised the Senate's passage Tuesday as an important step forward, but gave no indication they would accept it as is.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and others said senators may be more willing to negotiate after getting an earful during the August recess from voters who are grumpy with higher energy prices.

"We'll see in September after you've heard from all your constituents who can't pay their gas bill and electric bill at the same time," Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy said.

The government estimates that the portion of Area 181 opened by the Senate bill contains roughly 1.2-billion barrels of oil and more than 5-trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to heat 6-million homes for 15 years. The reserves in Area 182 are largely unknown.

Despite the promises of several senators during Tuesday's debate, analysts say opening Area 181 will offer no relief for $3 gasoline prices, but it may help stabilize the natural gas market.

Senate leadership and the Energy Committee staff will begin negotiating with their House counterparts immediately, aides said.

"We will wait and see what comes back," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who voted against the bill Tuesday.

"If the bill so much as touches California, there will be big trouble for this bill. If this bill so much as touches Florida, more than it already does, there will be big trouble for this bill."

Even if the House and Senate fail to reach a compromise this fall, the passage of significant off-shore drilling legislation in both chambers of Congress marks a major shift, and suggests drilling advocates could be successful next year.