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Congress sends oil drilling legislation to President Bush

Source:  Copyright 2006, Miami Herald
Date:  December 9, 2006
Byline:  Lesley Clark
Original URL: Status DEAD


Drilling for oil and natural gas in the deepest waters off Florida's Gulf shores would be allowed for the first time under legislation that is headed for President Bush's signature.

Early today Congress gave final approval to a measure that allows for energy exploration in a huge swath of the Gulf of Mexico 125 miles south of the Panhandle. Rigs would be barred 235 miles off the coast of Tampa and nearly 325 miles from Naples.

The measure -- approved by the Senate, 79-9, shortly before 2 a.m. and earlier passed by the House -- marks a victory for industry groups who waged a yearslong battle, and a major setback for environmental groups and some Florida lawmakers who had long fought efforts to explore Florida waters.

Members of the Florida delegation were divided in the debate over the legislation.

''Drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico not only threatens Florida's $57 billion tourism industry, but also America's most pristine shoreline,'' said Rep. Jim Davis, a Tampa Democrat who led the charge against drilling and is leaving office after an unsuccessful bid for governor.

But the bill had the backing of Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, who said it offers permanent protection for Florida's coastline at a time when pressure to open up federal land to energy extraction is increasing.

Martinez, who negotiated the measure with input from Nelson, rebuffed suggestions that the delegation could successfully maintain its total ''no drilling'' stance.

''I think what we've done is good for Florida,'' Martinez said of the legislation, noting it provides for buffers of hundreds of miles -- much farther than the House had wanted. 'Some folks would say, `no drilling,' but that's a pipe dream. Protecting Florida is the next best thing we could do.''

Many Gulf Coast lawmakers pleaded for its passage, arguing that oil royalties from exploration would help restore hurricane-damaged wetlands.

''The Louisiana delegation for decades has been asking for help, and it's been like a tree falling in the woods, unheard,'' said Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La.

``This is an opportunity to do something for energy production and to do something for America's wetlands.''

To sweeten the deal, lawmakers rolled the measure into a package of popular tax breaks, including a federal income-tax deduction for state sales taxes, a provision that affects states like Florida that don't have a state income tax.

''This vote is a victory for families worried about their soaring energy bills,'' Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said before the Senate acted.

Environmentalists assailed it, with Environment Florida director Mark Ferrulo calling it an ''early Christmas present to Big Oil'' and a ''stocking stuffed with tar balls'' for the state of Florida.

''The giveaway of 8 million acres of waters directly off Florida's coast to the oil industry is bad news for anyone who cares about the health of our marine wildlife and coastal environment,'' Ferrulo said, noting that if the bill is signed into law, Congress will have given a green light to the first oil drilling rigs ''in history'' off Florida's coast.

But Gov. Jeb Bush, once a critic of drilling in even far-away waters, said he could live with the legislation because it gives the state a 125-mile buffer -- and puts it in writing, as opposed to leaving it up to the whims of a future president.

''It's better to have that kind of permanency than have a change of policy in the out years,'' Bush told reporters in Tallahassee.

The measure split a once-united Florida congressional delegation, with many Republicans suggesting that rising energy costs made it critical to allow limited drilling in the Gulf in exchange for some protection.

Democrats and environmentalists argued that Congress would be better off addressing energy conservation and new sources of alternative fuels.

''If Congress was serious about offering real energy solutions, then we would be examining the true environmental and economic impacts of offshore drilling and exploring the use of clean, renewable energy technologies, increased fuel efficiency and conservation,'' said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat.

Both of Florida's senators, Nelson and Martinez, voted for the bill. In the House, where the vote was 367-45, all of Florida's Republican House members, except for Miami's Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, voted for the measure.

Ros-Lehtinen joined in voting against the measure with Democrats Davis, Wexler and Reps. Alcee Hastings of Miramar, Kendrick Meek of Miami and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.

Miami Herald staff writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report in Tallahassee.

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