- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2001

President Bush yesterday reached agreement with House lawmakers and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to allow new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The deal prohibits drilling within 100 miles of Florida's tourism-dependent beaches, reversing a Clinton-era decision that allowed drilling within 16 miles of shore.
"This moves us in a far better position than we ever could have imagined. It's a significant win from our perspective," said the Florida governor, who openly opposed near-shore drilling.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the president was merely fulfilling a campaign pledge to work with coastal governors in devising "a program that is balanced, that allows our beaches to be protected as well as development of energy in a way that is environmentally sensitive."
"The president has heard the voices of many people in Florida," Mr. Fleischer said. "He is concerned about the environment. He's concerned about people in Florida and their reaction to development of resources off of their shore."
The deal breathes new life into Mr. Bush's energy plan, which has stalled in Congress where he lacks support for drilling in Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge. The House voted last week to ban drilling in the Great Lakes.
The Gulf of Mexico drilling area, called lease 181, has been adjusted from 5.9 million acres to 1.5 million, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said.
Mrs. Norton said the adjusted area contains 1.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to serve 1 million families for 15 years. The area also contains 185 billion barrels of oil, enough to fuel the automobiles of a million families for six years.
"The funds from this and other lease sales are an important source of revenue to help protect our nation's environment and our natural resources," Mrs. Norton said.
The Clinton administration began developing the five-year outer continental shelf oil and gas lease program in 1994, and agreed to a 100-mile offshore ban. However, when the program was announced by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1996, the lease configuration came within 16 miles of Florida's coast.
Prospects are good the leases will sell because of the high probability of large reserves of natural gas and oil, said an Interior Department official.
Drilling is also conducted off the shores of Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Alaska, and on existing leases off the coast of California.
"The 181 area proposed today will help our nation reduce our dependence on foreign oil, including unstable nations such as Iran and Iraq," Mrs. Norton said.
"The proposal also works to meet the president's commitment to develop our nation's energy needs in an environmentally safe way," Mrs. Norton said.
The regulation does not require congressional approval, but the House last week attached a one-year moratorium onto a spending bill.
It is not yet clear whether the House will withdraw the moratorium or if the Senate will act on it, said the Interior Department official.
However, the main House critics say the new plan protects Florida's water and also curbs offshore activity in federal waters off the coast of Alabama, signaling Congress may lift the moratorium.
"Today's unprecedented decision reflects significant progress in Florida's fight to protect our coastline," the governor said.
Florida lawmakers said the president's compromise is a "win-win" for their state, but one Alabama congressman said the entire lease area should be put on the market.
"The bottom line is Florida's waters are protected and it's a considerably better deal than under the previous administration," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican.
"We're obviously very, very excited about the news and very grateful to the administration," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, Florida Republican.
However, Rep. Sonny Callahan, Alabama Republican, said the decision represents "one of those rare times that my views respectfully differ from those of the administration."
"Clearly, they are looking to reach consensus so this project can move forward, and I share this same desire," Mr. Callahan said.
"However, I hope the area that is being taken off the table for discussion today can remain open for future consideration down the road," Mr. Callahan said.
Oil and gas rigs are scattered over the western and central Gulf of Mexico, but no new federal leases have been offered in the eastern Gulf since 1988.
The federal government has collected more than $110 billion from onshore and offshore leases since 1982, with more than $16 billion going toward the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Deep-water drilling is encouraged by the Interior Department, through incentives to offset difficulties encountered.
* Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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