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Gore vows to block offshore drilling plans

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 1999


Last month, Vice President Al Gore's staff said he could not say a word about Chevron USA's plans to drill the first-ever producing gas wells off Florida's gulf coast. The law, they said, would not allow him to voice an opinion, even as a private citizen.

Gore broke his silence Thursday. In a campaign speech in Rye, N.H., Gore said he opposes allowing any new drilling off the Florida or California coast. If elected president next year, Gore said, he would block any new oil leases and any new wells off the shores of those two states.

"I will take the most sweeping steps in our history to protect our oceans and coastal waters from offshore oil drilling," Gore said. "I will do everything in my power to make sure that there is no new drilling off these sensitive coasts -- even in areas already leased for drilling by previous administrations."

A news release from Gore's campaign specifically mentioned Chevron's application to drill, which now is in the hands of U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley. But the release does not specifically say whether Gore opposes granting Chevron permission to drill off Florida.

Gore's chief Florida fundraiser, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, said that Gore remains bound by law to keep his hands off any decision involving Chevron's plans, but that he always has been a foe of offshore oil and gas wells.

"The White House is precluded from interfering by law," Berger said. "But personally, he's opposed to these."

Gore's statement delighted environmental groups opposing Chevron's efforts to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, about 25 miles due south of the sugar-white sands of Pensacola Beach.

"We've been all abuzz about that," said Renee Perry of the Gulf Coast Environmental Defense of Pensacola. "We think it's great. Of course, it's something he could accomplish now rather than waiting until he's president."

Commerce Department spokesman Morrie Goodman said he did not know whether Gore's speech would have any impact on Daley's decision about Chevron. Daley is expected to make a decision on the closely watched case by next spring.

Should Daley reject Chevron's application, Chevron attorney David Duplantier said Gore's statements would have "legal implications." He would not elaborate, although federal officials say they expect to be sued -- either by Chevron or Florida officials -- no matter what they do.

Chevron has been trying since 1996 to get government permission to drill 21 wells that would tap into a formation of natural gas 20,000 feet beneath the ocean floor. There is enough gas there to supply all Florida's commercial and residential gas customers for nearly 30 years, company officials say.

The water in that area of the gulf is remarkably pristine. Redfish and Spanish mackerel spawn there. Dolphins and sea turtles swim through regularly. On the bottom grow anemones and other creatures crucial to the food chain.

Last year, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles turned down Chevron's application. His administration cited concerns about the environmental impact from the wells and a 70-mile-long pipeline to carry the gas along the ocean floor to a processing facility near Mobile, Ala.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently backed up the state's findings, saying Chevron's drilling posed a threat to water quality and marine life.

Chevron appealed to Daley, the one federal official with the power to overturn Florida's decision. Over Chevron's objections, Daley ordered a public hearing in Pensacola last month. The hearing drew more than 500 people, all but a handful of them opposed to any offshore drilling.

Drilling opponents have frequently brought up a campaign promise that Gore made during a 1992 sweep through Florida that a Clinton-Gore administration would do a better job than then-President George Bush to protect the state's fragile environment from offshore drilling.

Bush's son Jeb, now Florida's governor, sent his top two environmental advisers to the Pensacola hearing to voice the state's opposition to drilling. One of them, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs, questioned Gore's silence on Chevron, calling it "not exactly a profile in leadership."

But Gore supporters have been quick to point out that Chevron's leases were granted by the Reagan and Bush presidential administrations.

"Gov. Bush is left to deal with this problem that was created by his father," Berger said.

GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush, who has received strong financial backing from the oil industry, has been vague about his position on offshore drilling.

But when questioned by reporters at the Florida Republican Convention on Oct. 8, Bush said he would work with his younger brother "to make sure we have an offshore drilling ban in Florida."


-- Staff writer Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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