- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Putting rigs in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would compromise one of the nation’s largest unobstructed test ranges for the U.S. military’s air and sea forces.

However, with a new drilling-friendly political climate and improved technology that makes it possible for wellheads and pumps to be placed in thousands of feet of water, senators pushing to open the eastern gulf to oil and natural gas exploration say the military is open to relaxing its long-standing opposition.

Democratic and Republican staffers from the Senate have been meeting for weeks with the assistant secretary of the Air Force and other defense officials to discuss ways to permit drilling in the waters as close as 50 miles from Florida without hurting the military’s ability to use the area for training.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the lead Republican in a bipartisan group of 10 senators who last week announced a comprehensive energy plan that calls for more offshore drilling, said he also met recently with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and that Mr. Gates seemed amenable.

“They are willing to work with us to make sure we have the opportunity to explore for additional reserves in the eastern gulf,” said Mr. Chambliss, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That’s being worked through.”

The military’s concerns helped Floridians in Congress wrangle a 2006 law that prohibits drilling within 125 miles of Pensacola and 234 miles of the Tampa Bay area.

However, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican, said he has asked the Defense Department to outline in writing how much of the eastern gulf it really needs. Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and a House Armed Services Committee member, has had similar discussions with the Air Force, said Dan McFaul, his chief of staff.

If the military can abide it, both members say they would favor drilling in the eastern gulf, though Mr. Young prefers a 100-mile buffer from shore.

“If they don’t need that much protection for their military training activities, then I’m willing to negotiate,” Mr. Young said. “Because 234 miles off our coast I don’t think is necessary to protect our beaches.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat and a top opponent of drilling off Florida, also recently met with Mr. Gates to express his concerns about increasing exploration.

According to Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin, the Pentagon chief said he “wouldn’t agree to anything that would degrade the military mission.” Yet Mr. McLaughlin acknowledged that leaves lots of wiggle room to allow more drilling.

Mr. Gates and Mr. Nelson agreed to meet again next month. The Pentagon declined to comment.

The military’s gulf test range includes all waters east of a line running from Hurlburt Field, near Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, south to the Keys. Jets from the naval air stations in Jacksonville and Pensacola use it, as do planes from Eglin and Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City. Aircraft carrier groups often practice maneuvers there.

With gas at $4 a gallon, pressure is building in Congress to increase supply.

The offshore drilling industry has developed technology that enables oil companies to pump from wells without an above-sea platform. They move a portable drilling platform in place, drill the well, then sail the platform to the next job. The wellhead and pumping stations are then placed on the seafloor, even in thousands of feet of water.

This approach, known as subsea tie-backs, enables companies to service multiple wells from a single platform or mother ship 40 miles away.

The key has been new techniques that keep oil and gas flowing even at extreme depths, where the water hovers near freezing, as well as remote-controlled underwater vehicles and robots that can construct and maintain equipment, experts said.

“You’re still going to need to put drilling rigs in the area to actually put the well in place, but once that’s complete, you can use subsea tie-backs so you don’t have anything above the surface,” said Michael Kearns, a spokesman for the National Oceans Industry Association.

Senators and congressional staffers meeting with the Pentagon say that if the Defense Department changes its position, they think they could turn enough votes in Congress to open the waters off Florida.

“DOD has indicated that they are very interested in working out a compromise that will facilitate more domestic energy production,” said Stephanie Allen, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat and a drilling proponent. “Our impression is that both sides are committed to reaching a workable alternative.”


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