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