- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Legislation that would open 3.6 million acres of the central Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling advanced in the Senate yesterday, despite strong objections from a Florida Republican senator, who said it fails to protect his state’s coast from environmental damage.

The proposal, approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee by a 16-5 vote, calls on the Interior Department to begin selling oil and gas leases in the waters known as Area 181 within a year. Actual production would be expected to begin within five years.

No drilling would be allowed within 100 miles of Florida’s coast.

“The risk to Florida is so minimal compared to the benefits,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, the panel’s chairman and the bill’s co-sponsor. He called the area “the most significant source of natural gas in the short term” in the United States.

The region, which first was singled out for energy development in 1997 by the Clinton administration, is believed to contain more than 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — enough to heat 6 million homes for 15 years — and nearly 1 billion barrels of oil, according to the Interior Department.

While the bill breezed through the committee, Florida’s senators have made it clear they will try to scale it back when it comes before the full Senate, including an expansion of the drilling buffer to 150 miles from any Florida coast.

“This bill does not offer Florida any kind of permanent protection,” complained Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, the only Republican on the committee to vote against the measure. Mr. Martinez has offered an alternative, opening 1.2 million acres of Area 181 as long as Florida also gets assurances development will not move closer to the state in the future.

But Mr. Martinez did not press the issue yesterday.

“I understand where the train is going,” he said of the committee’s sentiments. Later he told reporters he and his Florida colleague, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, are determined to block the legislation when it comes to the Senate floor unless senators agree to scale it back. The two senators in the past have threatened to filibuster any legislation that does not protect Florida.

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