WASHINGTON - Offshore drilling advocates today begin a new drive to expand oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, with legislation that could open some waters to rigs within 90 days of passage.
The House Resources Committee is expected to approve the legislation today and send it to the full House for a vote as early as next week. Lawmakers on both sides say the spike in energy prices has increased the odds that drilling off Florida's coast will be approved this year despite decades of opposition from the state's delegation.
"This is the most dangerous legislation I've seen in a quarter-century of working on this issue," said Richard Charter, national co-chairman of the National Outer Continental Shelf Coalition, which backs the drilling ban in much of the United States.
The bill is sponsored by the chairman of the Resources Committee, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.
"This month Mother Nature proved just how vulnerable America is to supply disruptions," Pombo said. "We must do more to increase and to diversify domestic supplies."
Pombo's bill also would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and would encourage oil shale development on public lands in the West. It would lift the ban on offshore drilling that has largely stopped new leases in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico as well as most of the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards.
And it would affect Florida in several ways:
-A large - and likely energy-rich - area more than 200 miles west of Tampa called Lease Sale 181 could be opened to drilling within 90 days of the bill becoming law, with no new environmental impact study needed.
-Florida's governor and Legislature could block drilling in five- year increments within 125 miles of most of the coast but would have to take a new vote periodically.
-The federal government would give Florida and other states billions of dollars in royalties if they approved drilling.
-Seaward boundaries delineating which states have political influence in various parts of the federal Gulf waters would be changed. That means even if Florida objected, natural-gas drilling could be done in some areas that are 25 miles from Florida's state waters and oil drilling could be done 50 miles away, if a nearby state wants the drilling. State waters extend about seven miles from shore.
Florida's senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, blocked drilling in the Eastern Gulf by threatening a filibuster during debate this summer over a new national energy policy. But spiking prices for gas and heating energy have changed the political dynamic.
The Eastern Gulf of Mexico has enough natural gas deposits to power 25 million homes for 15 years, said Betty Anthony of the American Petroleum Institute. "More than ever, we realize how important it is to have more domestic supply," she said.
But Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said the bill is dangerous because it concludes that drilling 25 miles away is not a threat. That makes it difficult for states to opt out, he said.
"This is what is staggering - it declares a national policy (that) drilling won't harm your environment," McLaughlin said.
Another group of lawmakers also will introduce legislation Wednesday that is even more supportive of drilling. Rep. John Mica, a Republican and the only Florida lawmaker who supported drilling before this year, is one of the co-sponsors. Mica said the country desperately needs domestic energy sources, and drilling in the Gulf can provide that without ruining the environment.
Mica said that although the legislation is already moving through the House, next month the Gulf drilling proposal may end up tacked on to a larger budget bill because that will increase its chances of passage.
That budget bill cannot be filibustered.
(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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