Lawmakers reach deal on offshore fuel drilling

June 20, 2006|By ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Key lawmakers in the U.S. House have reached a landmark deal to allow oil and gas drilling as close as 100 miles from the nation's shores, and even closer if states permit it. The agreement could spark a bruising fight among members from Florida and other coastal states who are split between taking a deal and continuing to fight for more protections.

Rep. Adam H. Putnam, a Florida Republican, reached the agreement over the weekend with Republican House Resources Chairman Richard W. Pombo of California and several Resources Committee members, lawmakers said yesterday.

The panel is scheduled to consider it today, with a vote by the full House as early as next week.

The deal is not as generous to Florida as the one rejected by Florida House members late last year, which would have kept drilling at least 125 miles off the state's shores, and it was unclear how widespread the support for this one will be.

But there is a sense among many Florida members, particularly Republicans, that their power to thwart attempts to drill in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, as they've done for a quarter-century, is waning as energy prices rise.

Yesterday's agreement would give state legislatures the power to choose to permit drilling within 100 miles of shore and would boost the revenues for states that decide to allow it.

Most Florida members were still digesting the plan late yesterday and didn't want to judge it yet. In a statement, Putnam said he would be going over the details with his Florida colleagues.

Several, including Republican Reps. Ginny Brown-Waite, Clay E. Shaw Jr. and Jeff Miller, liked much about the plan but wanted to study it further, aides said. Others, including Democrat Jim Davis and Republican Mark Foley, came out against it.

Davis, who is running for governor, called it an "enormous sacrifice." Oceanographers have warned that an oil spill 100 or 125 miles off Florida's Gulf Coast could get swept up by the loop current and carried to beaches from the Florida Keys to Alabama.

"There's enough oil 100 miles off the coast of Florida to create a spill that would threaten our environment and economy, but it's not a drop in the bucket as far as our nation's energy needs are concerned," Davis said.

Others maintain that Florida missed a golden opportunity when it rejected last year's plan, and they urged their colleagues to latch on to this one. With about two dozen bills affecting offshore drilling now floating around the U.S. House, they warn that patience for Florida's protection is wearing thin.

A pending bill that would allow natural gas drilling 20 miles offshore has the votes to pass.

"It [the current agreement] is a good deal. It's not quite as good as last year, but every year that goes by, we lose leverage," said Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican. "It's much better for the people of Florida to make the decisions than lawmakers from other states."

Currently, a hodgepodge of agreements prevents drilling within 100 miles of the Panhandle and more than 200 miles from Tampa Bay, but there is no protection for the state's eastern and southern coasts.

As hashed out over the weekend, the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act would ban oil and natural gas exploration within 50 miles of the U.S. coast, unless states petition the Interior Department to allow it.

Drilling would be allowed 50 to 100 miles from shore, unless state legislatures vote to block it every five years. States would have one year to block natural gas leasing and three years to block oil leasing.

Everything beyond 100 miles would be open to drilling. But the bill also would allow the Defense Department to object to any drilling project within its vast training zone in the eastern gulf, which reaches 234 miles west of Tampa Bay.

The president would resolve any dispute between the Interior and Defense departments over drilling.

Meanwhile, energy companies with existing leases within that 100-mile buffer - there are more than 60 in the gulf off Florida - could trade them for leases farther out. As an incentive to states to open near-shore waters to drilling, states would get 75 percent of the royalties that energy companies pay the federal government for drilling within 12 miles.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates the portion of the outer-continental shelf now off-limits nationwide contains 20 billion to 40 billion barrels of oil and 90 trillion to 160 trillion cubic feet of gas.

But the plan already is facing strong opposition from environmentalists, as well as some lawmakers from other coastal states, who say that more drilling is not a long-term solution to high energy prices.

"Mr. Putnam should be ashamed for signing off on this kind of deal," said Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club.

"This undercuts 25 years of protections for Florida's coast in one weekend of back-room negotiating. This is really a significant step backward for Florida and the rest of the country."

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