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    A Times Editorial

    A strong message on gulf drilling

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 24, 2001

    The U.S. House of Representatives' strong stand against drilling in the gulf shows the depth of opposition to a high-risk component of President Bush's energy plan. While only a temporary setback for the president, the vote underscores the concerns Americans across the political spectrum share about the environmental and economic risks of offshore gas and oil exploration. Thursday's vote revealed broad bipartisan opposition to drilling off or near Florida's coast. The 247-164 vote in the GOP-led House shows that banning drilling in the gulf is neither an extreme environmental position nor a parochial Florida interest. Under the amendment to a spending bill for the Interior Department, the House approved a six-month moratorium on new leases in Area 181, an L-shaped tract that is about 200 miles from the Pinellas coast and 30 miles from Pensacola. Shaped to fall outside the 100-mile radius from Florida's coast where Congress banned new leases, Area 181 is seen by the oil industry and some states as a critical source of new energy supplies.

    Democrat Jim Davis and Republican Joe Scarborough, both of Florida, deserve credit for building a solid case for the amendment in the face of active White House opposition. Gov. Jeb Bush has also opposed the leases, in what has become a triumph of common interest over partisan politics among Florida's elected leaders. Drilling even 200 miles away poses risks to the habitat and fishing and tourist industries that draw people worldwide to Florida. If Democrats and Republicans stick together, the gulf drilling fight could force the administration to balance new supplies with environmental protection and respect for legitimate state interests.

    The moratorium is not a long-term solution, but it at least gives the White House and the oil industry a chance to make the case that drilling is essential and can be done without undue risk to the gulf states, and opponents can study the financial costs to consumers and taxpayers for making the ban permanent.

    Congress' vote came the same day an overwhelming majority of respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll voiced sharp disagreement with the president's willingness to risk environment damage as the cost of generating new energy supplies. The Republican-controlled House has sent President Bush a clear message. He should take Area 181 -- drawn up during the Clinton administration -- off the table.

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