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Interior's Norton backs moratorium on drilling


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton tried to walk a fine line with President Bush's energy policy Wednesday, suggesting that offshore drilling along Florida's coast is a possibility while appeasing the state's opposition to it.

Norton testified before lawmakers at a House Resources Committee hearing on developing a national energy plan. She indicated that the administration will not make any changes to the current moratorium, which prohibits new oil and gas leases within about 100 miles of Florida's coast.

"We will continue to support the moratorium," Norton said. "The role of the states in making these decisions is something that should be recognized."

But Norton noted that a recent report from an advisory panel said "states might be receptive to changes in the moratorium."

On the issue of offering oil and gas leases in a 6-million-acre tract off Florida and Alabama known as Area 181, Norton said that 181 was outside the moratorium but did not say the president would definitely recommend drilling.

The Bush administration is continuing a Clinton-era plan to sell leases in the L-shaped area near Pensacola, but Gov. Jeb Bush opposes it. Before deciding, the administration will finish its environmental impact study of the area. That is expected next month.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the incoming chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said he supports the plan to sell new leases in 181. "I have not seen any reason we should not go ahead with the leasing in that area," Bingaman said Wednesday.

- Times staff writer Bill Adair contributed to this report.

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