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Florida Drilling Plan Alters Political Landscape

State Republicans and Democrats criticize Gov. Jeb Bush for backing a bill that would allow oil interests to explore closer to the coast.

October 11, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Opposing offshore drilling for oil and gas has traditionally been a bipartisan affair in Florida, where the $57-billion annual tourism industry is greatly dependent on unsullied, inviting beaches.

But an announcement by Gov. Jeb Bush may signal the end of that political unity -- and a split in his own party.

The Republican governor has endorsed a plan, part of a bill proposed by a California congressman that would allow, among other things, oil rigs 125 miles off the coast. In exchange, Bush said, the state would get other coastal protections.

But environmentalists and Republican and Democratic critics say what Bush advocates would actually allow for oil and gas exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico closer to Florida.

"The governor is seeking better protection, and lasting protection, for Florida's coasts," Bush spokeswoman Deena Reppen said in defending his stance.

She said the governor wanted a secure 125-mile ban on oil and gas drilling off the state's shoreline from Jacksonville on the Atlantic Ocean to Pensacola on the gulf.

The proposed legislation -- and the pressure to support it -- comes as fuel prices are at record highs and energy production in the gulf has been crippled by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler accused Bush, who cannot seek reelection when his second term expires next year, of performing a flip-flop that "abandons Florida's coast."

"For many years, the Florida congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats, has been unified in opposing drilling off the Florida coastline," Wexler said. He said that meant in the waters up to three miles from the coast that are under Florida's control, and in the adjacent belt, extending 200 miles from shore, where the federal government regulates drilling for oil and gas.

"Gov. Bush unfortunately has effectively undermined that unity," Wexler said. "Now it's all negotiable."

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) said last week that the plan would be a good deal for Florida.

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez said he had a "little different strategy than Bush."

"It's not the right thing for our environment, it's not the right thing for Florida's economy, and frankly it's not the right thing for the military who rely greatly on the eastern Gulf of Mexico as a training ground for the military presence that we have in the Florida Panhandle," Martinez said.

Florida's other senator, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, also is adamantly opposed to opening up waters nearer to the state to drilling, spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said the Interior Department had estimated that hydrocarbon reserves off western Florida and the Panhandle would cover about 200 days of the nation's gasoline and heating oil needs. It is not a sufficient gain, McLaughlin said, to expose Florida's tourism industry and fragile subtropical environment to the "gigantic risk" of spills or other accidents.

Bush's position appears to have sown disarray in his state's 27-member congressional delegation, which, Wexler said, had been virtually unanimous as recently as late September in opposing major changes in where offshore drilling is allowed.

"Gov. Bush has come and undermined all of that," Wexler said.

Pressure from oil and gas interests to lift drilling bans in Florida's coastal waters and across the country has forced the state's elected representatives to consider their positions. Adding to the pressure is a bill proposed by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Committee on Resources.

A goal of Pombo's bill, said Jennifer Zuccarelli, the committee's press secretary, is to "diversify energy resources geographically so we're not so dependent on one area of the gulf."

Congressional staffers said the bill, parts of which are being negotiated, would allow individual states to decide whether to keep bans on coastal drilling intact after 2012, when they expire. States that allowed energy production off their coasts would receive 50% of the revenue.

Florida environmentalists called the proposal from the California Republican a bad deal for their state.

"I think the Pombo bill represents a major weakening of the protections we have," said Mark Ferrullo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, a Tallahassee-based environmental advocacy organization.

"Right now, off the coast of Florida, there are not now, nor have there ever been, any production rigs, and that's going out 300 miles," Ferrullo said. He said the bill also didn't address existing leases whose holders, for the moment, were barred from exploiting them.

"Those are loaded guns pointed right at our coastline and our way of life," Ferrullo said. "The day after this [the Pombo bill] passes, and a big press conference is held saying we're protecting Florida's coast, Exxon or Chevron could apply to build a production rig 11 miles off our coast."

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