It's Bush vs. Bush in gulf drilling battle
By BILL ADAIR
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001
WASHINGTON -- In a battle that could pit President Bush against his brother Jeb, the U.S. Interior Department is pursuing plans to auction 6-million acres of oil and gas sites in the Gulf of Mexico.
Although a decision won't be made until October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton informed Gov. Jeb Bush last week that the administration is moving forward with the plans because of the nation's need for new energy sources.
Norton said the L-shaped area south of Pensacola has so much oil and gas that it "can play an important role in our national energy strategy."
But the governor said Wednesday that he was determined to fight the plan and noted that his brother's administration was siding with two Democrats -- Bill Clinton and former Gov. Lawton Chiles, who did not oppose the plan when they were in office.
"I don't like to disagree with my brother's administration, but when it's in the best interest of the state, I have to," the governor said. "The administration has taken the same position as the Clinton administration and the Chiles administration and I don't think it's the right position."
The disagreement is a recipe for a political showdown.
On one side is President Bush, who has called for new domestic energy sources, but has yet to make a decision on the Gulf of Mexico site. On the other side is his brother Jeb, who, like most Florida politicians, is opposed to any plan that would put oil or gas rigs near the state's coastline.
Congress is also in the mix.
On one side is the state's congressional delegation, which has blocked new oil and gas leases within 100 miles of the Florida coast. On the other side are the delegations from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, which support the new leases because of the jobs and economic benefits for their states.
The site, known as Area 181, is shaped like an "L" so it will be outside the 100-mile radius of Florida where Congress has prohibited the leases. The top part is only 30 miles from Pensacola, but it is west of the Florida state line.
The area, which is about 200 miles west of the Tampa Bay area, has an estimated 396-million barrels of oil and 2.9-trillion cubic feet of natural gas, Norton said.
"I share your commitment to protect the environment of Florida's coastline as well as the entire eastern gulf of Mexico," Norton wrote to Gov. Bush. "At the same time, I must consider our nation's energy needs and appropriate management of the American public's natural resources."
The plan to sell leases in Area 181 has been discussed since 1997 but has picked up momentum because of the Bush administration's drive to find new energy sites. Norton's latest action was first reported Wednesday by USA Today.
Congress could block the plan by simply expanding its prohibition to include Area 181. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican who leads the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has sponsored the existing ban every year.
"Congressman Young has been one of the most vociferous opponents," said Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, which opposes the new leases. "He's in a position where he could play a large role in stopping the lease sale."
Ferrulo said the next few months will be critical in determining the future of oil and gas drilling off the Florida coast. In addition to the debate over Area 181, the Bush administration also will make important decisions about existing leases off the coast.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday, Gov. Bush said he had pressed Florida's case with Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff Andrew Card. He said he "pointed out there needs to be a balanced approach to this and that I'm representing a state that is opposed to offshore drilling because of the threat to larger economic interests and our environment."
He said Cheney and Card replied that the nation had a pressing need for new energy sources.
Asked if he had discussed the issue with the president, Bush said he had but emphasized he was acting as any governor would and had not received special treatment because, as he put it, the president was "my bro."
In a letter responding to Norton on Wednesday, the governor said it was important to prohibit drilling in the entire eastern gulf, not just Area 181. He said that if drilling begins in Area 181, it is likely to expand because energy companies will want to take advantage of the pipelines and infrastructure.
"Further encroachment toward our beaches will become inevitable," the governor wrote.
He noted that the section of 181 near Alabama would be "well within 100 miles of some Florida beaches. These beaches are considered by many to be among the best in the world."
During the campaign, candidate George W. Bush said he supported a moratorium on new leases off Florida's coast. But he left some wiggle room.
Because of the magnitude and sensitivity of the decision, Norton will need White House approval.
"Speculation about any final decision is premature," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "As the letter says, the administration takes very seriously the views of Gov. Bush."
- Times staff writers Julie Hauserman, Howard Troxler and Sara Fritz contributed to this report.
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