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No drilling deal despite talks

Leaders in the House and Senate are unable to agree on protection for Florida's coast.

Published September 30, 2006

WASHINGTON - Despite heavy pressure from the White House and frenzied negotiations until the final hour, Congress recessed for the fall elections without reaching a deal to protect Florida's west coast from oil and gas drilling while opening more of the nation's coast to energy exploration.

Despite weeks of talks, leaders in the House and Senate were unable to reconcile competing versions of their offshore drilling bills before Congress left town for a six-week recess. They vowed to try again when Congress returns after the Nov. 7 election.

"I hope the House recognizes what is politically possible in the Senate," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the author of the Senate bill, said Friday.

At issue is how much of the U.S. coast should be open for drilling. A bill passed this summer by the Senate called for opening just over 2-million acres of the northeastern gulf, called Lease-Sale Area 181, to drilling, as well as more than 6-million acres of gulf directly south that's currently off limits.

As part of the bill, which won the support of Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, drilling would be banned 125 miles off the Panhandle and some 234 miles off Tampa Bay.

The House version was far more sweeping, allowing drilling 100 miles off virtually the entire U.S. coast while giving states the authority to allow drilling closer.

Both bills, which are opposed by many environmental groups, would funnel billions of dollars in leasing royalties to states that allow drilling.

The dispute was over scope: House leaders believed the Senate bill would have little impact on domestic supply of oil and natural gas, while theirs would have a big impact. Senate leaders insisted that only their version could pass the Senate.

That angered House members, who contended the Senate's idea of compromise was for the House to simply agree with the Senate.

"I told them, if you want me to ever support your bill, you've got to at least show a good faith effort that you tried to move the ball," said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who has been part of the negotiations. "If you keep saying 'I can't, I can't, I can't,' then I can't either."

By late this week, with staff from the White House involved in negotiations, House leaders were willing to accept most of the Senate version, provided Senate leaders agreed to allow drilling off two states that want it, Virginia and Alaska, members and aides said.

Then talks stalled when some senators questioned the seaward boundaries the House used to determine the states' shares of royalties. They said the boundaries were unfair to some states. The House negotiators disagreed.

"We are perplexed by the suggestion that the House maps are somehow inequitable," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo. "The clock ran out and that's where we were stuck."

[Last modified September 30, 2006, 01:16:23]

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