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National Perspective | ENERGY

Gulf Drilling Plan Could Trigger Bush Family Feud


WASHINGTON — It lies beneath the flat, shimmering waters of the Gulf of Mexico, off the coasts of Florida and Alabama: a 6-million-acre expanse that oil and gas interests believe holds a rich reservoir of natural gas.

Industry officials are pushing to open up the eastern gulf to drilling by allowing the federal government to move forward with the first lease sale there in more than a decade. They hope President Bush, a former oilman, will be as strong an advocate of the sale as he has been of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

But just as the Gulf and Arctic climates differ vastly, so do the politics about drilling in the two regions. The gulf battleground presents Bush with personal and political dilemmas in a skirmish that is replete with irony.

Oil and gas interests that donated heavily to Bush's presidential campaign want the administration to move ahead with the sale. But the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, opposes the drilling for economic and environmental reasons, as do most officials in the state that was crucial to the president's election.

The Clinton administration, criticized by former Texas Gov. Bush during the campaign for neglecting the nation's energy needs, approved the lease sale, and a group of Senate Democrats is pushing for it to proceed.

And, if Bush cancels the sale, he would find himself on the same side as environmentalists fighting Big Oil.

The decision whether to let the sale go forward comes at a critical time. As summer approaches, California and other Western states are gearing up for serious electricity shortages, and the administration is warning of a national energy crisis.

The 6 million acres at issue begin 15 miles offshore and extend to more than 100 miles off the Alabama and Florida coasts. The area, known as Lease Sale 181, is excluded from a federal moratorium on new offshore oil leases that was put in place by former President Bush and extended by President Clinton until 2012.

Drilling advocates have pointedly used the administration's own words to lobby for the lease sale.

"This administration has consistently stated that energy supplies are a major concern," several industry groups said in a letter to President Bush.

Some key Republicans in Congress also support the lease sale, which will go forward in December unless the administration acts to cancel or postpone it.

"With production declining in the western and central portions of the Gulf of Mexico, the vast resources in the eastern segment of the gulf have become ever more important to meeting our national energy needs," says a letter from the Mississippi delegation to Congress, signed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican, among others.

About 4,000 rigs dot the Gulf of Mexico--mostly off Louisiana and Texas--producing more than 500 million barrels of oil and 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas last year and bringing in more than $5 billion to the federal treasury, according to federal figures.

Industry officials estimate that Lease Sale 181 could yield as much as 7.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 1.9 billion barrels of oil. Government estimates are lower.

"It's huge," said Jack Ekstrom, director of governmental and industry affairs for Forest Oil Corp., which hopes to bid on the lease. "I understand that there are a lot of politics at work here, but the [environmental] risk is so low."

Still, Gov. Bush and most of the Florida congressional delegation have urged the administration not to move forward with the lease sale.

"Florida's economy is based upon tourism and other activities that depend on a clean and healthy environment," Gov. Bush wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to the Interior Department. "It is my hope that Interior will recognize that the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico planning area contains many sensitive marine and coastal resources, and not advance any new leasing in this area. . . . Few other issues so completely unite Floridians."

Drilling proponents use some of the same arguments that President Bush has put forth to promote drilling in the Arctic refuge: that technological advances have reduced the environmental risks.

A key difference: Drilling in the refuge is supported by Alaska's governor and much of the state's political establishment.

Though Bush has not indicated what his decision will be, a White House spokesman repeated promises that Bush made during the campaign to heavily weigh the opinions of governors of affected states. "I understand the importance of listening to state concerns," candidate Bush said, pledging to evaluate drilling "on a case-by-case basis."

Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said the administration would never "put Jeb Bush in a difficult position. Blood is thicker than party loyalty."

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