[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Spin aside, this deal will haunt Gov. Bush in '02

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 2001


The Bush brothers promoted their agreement Monday on oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico as a significant compromise.

The Bush brothers promoted their agreement Monday on oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico as a significant compromise.

Politically, though, there is only one winner. He lives in the White House, not the Governor's Mansion.

That is not the spin the Bush brothers prefer. President Bush and Gov. Bush want to convince voters that their compromise on offshore oil and gas drilling is wonderful for all sides.

"I really call this a win for the people of Florida," Gov. Jeb Bush said from Maine, where he is vacationing at the family home in Kennebunkport.

It's really an oil-covered fig leaf for the president that creates more problems for the governor.

President Bush has been hammered for his environmental policies. His eagerness to drill in the gulf and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, dismissal of global warming and rejection of tougher arsenic standards in drinking water made him an easy target.

Then Bush received a wake-up call about two weeks ago from the U.S. House. An amendment that would place a six-month moratorium on any new oil and gas leases in the gulf's Area 181, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa and Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough of Pensacola, won 70 Republican votes and passed easily.

The president was in a box. Environmentalists blasted him from one side. Friendly oil interests pressured him to allow drilling. In Florida, Gov. Bush's only viable political option was to oppose any drilling.

Monday's compromise brought the president considerable relief. Nervous Republican members of Congress from Florida were happy. Presumably, so were drilling supporters from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Environmentalists such as Charles Lee of the Florida Audubon Society and Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group praised the agreement.

"This is a victory of historic proportions," Ferrulo said on the conference call arranged by the governor's office.

Not for Gov. Bush.

To appreciate Monday's compromise requires a grasp of state borders, national energy policy and history. When Gov. Bush says there will be no new lease sales off Florida's coast, he means there won't be any within 100 miles of the state's shores. When he says the compromise beats the Democrats' policies, he means the Clinton administration proposed new leases in Area 181 and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles did not actively oppose them.

In Florida, the political debate over offshore oil and gas drilling is not as nuanced. You either oppose drilling or you don't.

Now Gov. Bush heads into a re-election campaign in support of offshore drilling. Instead of being within 30 miles of Pensacola, it would be at least 100 miles out. Instead of being 213 miles west of the Tampa Bay area, it would be at least 285 miles out.

Are those 72 additional miles enough for the governor to convince moderate Tampa Bay voters he has adequately protected Florida's coastline?

Instead of eliminating offshore oil drilling as a campaign issue, Monday's compromise elevated it. Listen to four potential Democratic candidates for governor:

State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami: "You knew from the very beginning if big brother wanted to drill for oil, little brother was not going to stand in the way."

Florida House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach: "If there is an oil spill, do you think (72) miles is going to make a difference? I wouldn't risk it."

Tampa lawyer Bill McBride: "It's another government-by-slogan-type packaging. This whole administration has been about putting a good name on a bad dog."

Davis, the most cautious of the Democrats: "It could have been worse, but we can do better."

The Democrats' argument is simple. They say they oppose drilling and Gov. Bush supports it. The more strident, such as Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe, also accuse the Bush brothers of breaking campaign promises to oppose offshore drilling.

The Bush brothers will counter that Area 181 is not in Florida's state waters and that they have not violated any campaign pledge. But their own statements will be used against them.

"I'm going to work with your governor on offshore drilling here in Florida," George W. Bush said at an October rally in Pasco County. "We're both against it."

"Florida has long held that no oil and gas drilling should occur within 100 miles of Florida's coast," Jeb Bush wrote to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in April. "My position has been that there should be no such activity in the entire eastern gulf."

Prediction: Voters will see those statements in some Democrat's campaign commercial next year, next to a big picture of an oil rig and a headline about broken promises.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.