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    President's logic on drilling: That's Alabama, not Florida

    Members of Florida's congressional delegation say the line being drawn between the two states is meaningless, especially in an oil spill.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001

    Echoing his younger brother in the Governor's Mansion, George W. Bush assured voters during the presidential campaign that he would oppose oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida.

    But he never said anything about Alabama.

    That is the logic the Bush administration is using to explain why it is considering a controversial plan to allow new oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the tract is just 30 miles from Pensacola and extends south to 213 miles off the coast of St. Petersburg, Bush administration officials say it is fair game because it is west of the Florida-Alabama border.

    All the president specifically promised during the campaign, his aides say, was to support a drilling moratorium that extends 100 miles off Florida's coast.

    "The area where the new leases would be located is outside the moratorium," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "It's a new lease that is located in the gulf off the coast of Alabama."

    Gov. Bush is urging his brother to oppose the plan but does not believe the president misled voters last year. "I don't think he is breaking his promise," the governor said.

    Members of Florida's congressional delegation say the fine line the Bush brothers are drawing between Alabama and Florida waters is a distinction without meaning.

    "That's balderdash," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat. "That doesn't solve your problem if waves of oil start lapping up on your beaches in Clearwater and Destin."

    Mitchell Berger, Fort Lauderdale lawyer and key adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, said the new leases would break the spirit of the president's campaign promises.

    "It doesn't seem that he is being consistent with his campaign statements," Berger said. "He certainly knows the drilling we were concerned about was off the coast of Pensacola and the gulf region."

    The rekindled debate over offshore drilling is the first major policy disagreement between the Bush brothers. It carries considerable political risk for both men.

    Florida is viewed as critical to the president's 2004 re-election. While President Bush has yet to visit Democrat-dominated California, he will make his third trip to Florida this year when he stops in Jacksonville on Wednesday.

    Within the next two months, Gov. Bush is expected to announce his re-election plans for 2002. Most Florida voters and politicians from both major political parties oppose offshore drilling, and the outcome of the latest debate will affect the governor's political future.

    "If this is crammed down the throats of Floridians," Nelson said, "clearly there will be some transfer of responsibility from Bush administration, U.S., to Bush administration, FL."

    But the battle to prevent the offshore drilling could be difficult.

    The president left himself wiggle room, but the leases have strong support from the Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi congressional delegations. That could doom any efforts by Florida representatives to expand the existing moratorium, which prohibits new leases within 100 miles of the Florida coast, to include the new tract.

    U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, has passed the Florida moratorium for the 100-mile zone every year over the objections of members from Louisiana and other states. But if the moratorium were expanded to include that tract, it's likely the Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi delegations could kill the plan.

    That also could jeopardize the existing 100-mile moratorium.

    Young said he met recently with Vice President Dick Cheney's staff about the issue and wants to raise it with congressional colleagues next week. He said one possibility is a compromise that would prohibit leases in the northern part of the site that is closest to Pensacola, but allow them in the area that is farther out to sea.

    Eliminating the northern part "would make it less obnoxious" to Florida, Young said, but leases would still be allowed in the remainder of the tract.

    A split in Florida's congressional delegation also could be troublesome. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said in a letter to a colleague last month that he supports the leases contemplated by the Department of the Interior outside the 100-mile zone.

    "Yes, we must protect the environment and develop alternative energy sources, but we must also plan for both short and long-term energy needs," Mica wrote.

    President Bush also is trying to balance those interests.

    Fuel prices are rising, which gives new urgency to his efforts to find new sources of oil and natural gas. But the president faces rising criticism from environmentalists because of recent actions involving drinking water and air pollution.

    Bush made several environmental announcements last week to show he was as green as any Democrat. But he will surely be attacked if he approves the new leases in the gulf.

    Some oil leases were sold in the gulf south of the Florida Panhandle many years ago. But action by Congress and President Bush's father prevents drilling there and prohibits any new leases within about 100 miles of the state's coast.

    The new site, known as Area 181, falls outside that moratorium.

    It is shaped like an "L" so it will be outside the 100-mile limit. The top part of the "L" is only 30 miles from Pensacola, but it is in Alabama water west of the Florida state line. The area has an estimated 396-million barrels of oil and 2.9-trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

    The new leases were proposed by the Clinton administration about four years ago. Gov. Bush pointed out this week that former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who supported the 100-mile buffer, did not oppose the new tract because it was closest to Alabama.

    But a former Chiles aide said the late governor wasn't fond of the idea.

    "He didn't like it, but he thought it was a state's rights issue," said Estus Whitfield, who was an environmental adviser to Chiles. "He thought that if Alabama wants drilling off Alabama, then that's their right. He didn't oppose it in the same way that he opposed drilling in the 100-mile buffer off Florida."

    President Bush's aides emphasize that the administration won't make a decision on the new leases until October.

    Both Bush brothers have taken plenty of money from oil interests.

    In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush's campaign received more than $1.8-million from oil and gas interests. The Republican Party received more than $15-million from those businesses.

    "This president and interior secretary are heavily predisposed to drill for oil in Alaska and now Florida," said Rep. Jim Davis, a Tampa Democrat who is considering running for governor. He called the leases "an unacceptable risk."

    During Jeb Bush's 1998 race for governor, the Florida Republican Party received more than $200,000 in oil industry money from Texas. Yet the governor has been a staunch opponent of the new leases.

    On Wednesday, Gov. Bush sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton saying he opposed all drilling in the eastern gulf because "further encroachment toward our beaches will become inevitable."

    He told reporters he was optimistic.

    "We still have until October before a final decision is made," Gov. Bush said. "I don't think we can write the obituary on this one yet."

    - Staff writers Julie Hauserman and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

    * * *

    President Bush on oil drilling

    In the course of the 2000 presidential campaign, President Bush made several statements about his position on oil drilling off the coast of Florida. Among them:

    * * *

    Bush supports "the moratorium against new leases for oil and gas drilling off the coasts of California and Florida. Will work with California and Florida leaders and local affected communities to determine on a case-by-case basis whether or not drilling should go forward on existing leases." -- 2000 campaign Web site

    * * *

    "I'm going to work with your governor on offshore drilling here in Florida. We're both against it." -- October 2000 in Pasco County

    * * *

    "I would work with Gov. (Jeb) Bush to support an offshore drilling ban in Florida."

    -- October 1999, Florida Republican Party convention

    * * *

    "I'm not for that. I support the extension of the moratorium." -- March 2000, in response to questions from Florida reporters about whether he supported proposals by Republican members of Congress to open up waters off Florida's coasts to oil drilling.

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