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    Fla. DEP defends decision to block drilling

    By Times staff writer

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 30, 2001

    In a final bid to block Chevron USA from drilling for natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection contended Friday that federal agencies agree that drilling risks unacceptable harm to the state's natural resources.

    State officials turned down Chevron's request to drill 25 miles off Pensacola Beach in 1998. The oil giant appealed to the U.S. Commerce Department to overturn the decision and allow drilling in the Destin Dome 56 Field.

    Because this is the last round of briefs allowed by Commerce officials, Friday's filing by the state DEP is the state's final attempt to persuade Commerce officials to uphold the state's decision. There is no timetable for making a final determination.

    The DEP's brief notes that two federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service, have warned that drilling in the gulf could harm endangered sea turtles, gulf sturgeon and unique sea-floor habitats, and that spills of diesel fuel or other pollutants would likely wash up on Florida beaches.

    Drilling in the gulf is so politically unpopular in Florida that a 1999 public hearing that federal officials held in Pensacola drew 500 people, virtually all opposed to Chevron's plans.

    However, the White House's energy plan released earlier this year encourages consideration of drilling in areas once considered off-limits. Gov. Jeb Bush, who opposes the Chevron application, has been urging his brother, President Bush, to halt federal plans to sell new oil and gas leases in a 6-million-acre tract off Florida and Alabama known as Area 181.

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