- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. (AP) - Echoing last year’s “Drill, baby, drill” Republican election slogan, a GOP-dominated House panel voted Tuesday to allow oil and natural gas exploration and production in Florida waters up to 10 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

In a mostly party-line vote _ only one Democrat voted for it _ the House Policy Council approved a bill being pushed by Associated Industries of Florida that would repeal the state’s drilling ban. It would let the governor and Florida Cabinet lease submerged state lands in the eastern gulf for drilling.

That authority would not apply beyond 10 miles, where federal law prohibits drilling within 125 miles of Florida’s coast. The bill is a long way from becoming law, however _ it still needs approval from the full House, and a companion measure is stalled in the Senate.

“Floridians know that such exploration and production strengthen our national security, keeps the price of fossil fuels more competitive and helps ensure that we have power when we need it, and more importantly when we want it,” said Associated Industries president and CEO Barney Bishop.

At one point, Republicans and Democrats alike maintained opposition to offshore drilling, fearing spills and other pollution could damage Florida’s beaches and multibillion-dollar tourism economy.

“I can’t believe some Florida lawmakers might actually be serious about allowing oil drilling within ten miles offshore,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement.

Most Republicans, though, abandoned their opposition to drilling when their 2008 presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, embraced it as a solution to $4-a-gallon gasoline and the nation’s reliance on imported oil.

As originally introduced by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, the bill (HB 1219) would have directed the Department of Environmental Protection to develop a drilling plan and submit it to legislative leaders.

The council instead adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, to remove that language and replace it with the version endorsed by Associated Industries.

Associated Industries gave lawmakers a slide show and glossy printed handouts. Bishop was accompanied by an economist, pollster and two powerful attorneys, one of them a Texas oil lawyer. They testified the state would receive $31 billion from drilling in a 20-year span, saying most Floridians favor the idea and that it could be done without harm to the environment.

The amendment, filed Monday, caught environmentalists who oppose drilling off guard, including Debbie Harrison of the World Wildlife Fund.

“Please do not allow people who are being compensated most generously to articulate on behalf of the oil industry to talk to you about the environmental sensitivity of oil drilling,” Harrison told the panel.

Cannon said his amendment would merely begin a drilling dialogue, leaving the decision to the governor and cabinet on a case-by-case basis.

“This amendment does not authorize any actual oil or natural gas exploration,” Cannon said. “It does, however, open that possibility.”

Florida Audubon lobbyist Eric Draper argued it favors drilling. Instead of requiring oil companies to prove a proposed offshore exploration lease would not damage the environment, it places the burden on the state to show the drilling would be harmful before an application could be rejected, Draper said.

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