Oil, Gas Drilling Bill Passes House

Oil Drilling Station

Gov. Jeb Bush welcomed the passage Thursday of a bill by the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow oil and natural gas drilling 50 miles off Florida's shores, but he promised to ask state lawmakers to keep the rigs 100 miles away.

The vote split Florida's House delegation 14-11 in favor of the bill, which passed 232-187. Both of the state's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, have said they would filibuster to try to prevent it from passing in the Senate.

The bill would lift a 25-year moratorium on drilling off most of the nation's coastlines but replace it with the 50-mile buffer. States then could permit drilling closer to shore or expand the buffer to 100 miles.

Bush was worried that without such legislation the state would have no protection because the moratorium is scheduled to expire in 2012.

'By maintaining a no-drilling buffer zone, which I have long advocated, we protect Florida's coastal habitats,' Bush said in a statement released by his office. 'Additionally, this bill safeguards the critical training and testing missions of our nation's military for 234 miles from the west coast of Florida.'

The bill was amended to forbid drilling in the Gulf of Mexico east of the Department of Defense's military mission line extending due south from the Fort Walton Beach area in the Florida Panhandle near Eglin Air Force Base.

That part of the gulf is used by the Air Force and Navy for training and weapons testing.

Bush said if the bill becomes law, he would call the Legislature into special session in November to exercise Florida's right to extend the buffer to 100 miles.

Only one Florida Democrat, Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello, voted for the bill while the other six opposed it. Boyd said passage of the military mission line amendment that he and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, had offered made the difference for him.

'While this bill may not be the ideal for all Floridians, it does provide protections in the gulf that we have never had before,' Boyd said. He said the bill may be as good as Florida can expect to get because the nation's political climate is changing in favor of drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.

Rep. Jim Davis, a Tampa Democrat who is running to succeed Bush, a Republican who cannot seek re-election due to term limits, has been a leading opponent of offshore drilling.

'The oil and gas industry already has access to over 80 percent of the known reserves of oil and natural gas in our offshore areas, and they have rights to more than 4,000 untapped leases in the Gulf of Mexico alone,' Davis said.

'Does it make sense,' he added, 'to put our coasts at risk when there is so little to gain and when the industry has not even tapped into the leases they own?'

Thirteen Florida Republicans supported the bill while five - Reps. Mark Foley of Lake Worth, Katherine Harris of Longboat Key, Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers, Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami - voted against it.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, offered another amendment that would have increased the maximum protection from 100 miles to 125 but it was defeated 353-65.

Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, negotiated details of the legislation with House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

'The passage of this legislation is a significant victory for Florida,' Putnam said. 'The Atlantic coasts and the Florida Keys, which currently are not protected by a moratorium, are protected for up to 100 miles under the bill.'

Putnam pointed out that the House recently came within 14 votes of passing legislation that would have allowed drilling only 3 miles off Florida's Atlantic coast and 9 miles off the state's Gulf Coast.

Mark Ferrulo, director of the anti-drilling Florida Public Interest Research Group, said the bill's passage shows the degree to which the House 'has been hijacked by the oil industry. What makes this assault on Florida's coast even more of an outrage is that for the first time in history, a number of Florida representatives aided the effort.'

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