Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Senate GOP leaders said Wednesday they had forged an agreement to open up a potentially rich area for oil and natural gas exploration off Florida's Gulf coast.
But the proposal, which senators suggested was their final offer, may prove politically difficult to reconcile with an offshore drilling plan approved by the House. That plan could open a far larger area of the East and West Coasts for energy exploration.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, described the measure to expand exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, as "the best single energy arrangement we can make for the American people this year."
The plan would allow leasing in 8 million acres within so-called Lease Area 181, which is off the western coast of Florida, and another 6.3 million acres just south of the 181 site.
To protect the Florida coast, the plan would stipulate that drilling could not be undertaken within 125 miles of the state's shoreline through 2022.
The plan would also direct 37.5 percent of the future royalties from development in this area to four energy producing Gulf states, including Texas. Another 12.5 percent of the revenue would be deposited in a federal land and water conservation fund. The remainder of the royalties would go to the federal government.
"Through federal royalty sharing, the Gulf Coast states will be provided a means to protect important national eco- systems and prepare themselves for unforeseen natural disasters," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, said.
Lawmakers said the area contains an estimated 1.1 billion barrels of crude oil and 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Designed for support
The measure was designed to draw the support of Florida's two senators, who had previously threatened to filibuster any plan that involved drilling that could affect the state's beaches, which are a major draw for tourists.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said he believed the plan would protect the state's beaches. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said that while the proposal was promising, he warned that the "devil is in the details."
While Domenici described the plan in general, he has not released details on where drilling would be allowed.
Nelson warned that he would fight any compromise with the House bill, which would end an Outer Continental Shelf drilling moratorium that Congress has renewed every year since 1981.
The House bill would allow drilling within 50 miles of the shoreline in an area that covers 85 percent of the country's coastal waters everywhere except the central and western Gulf of Mexico and some areas off Alaska. That law would allow state governments to decide to block drilling.
It is unclear whether the House and Senate could bridge differences on vastly different versions of energy legislation. Majority Leader Bill Frist said he had not talked to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., about the bill. The majority leader said he hoped to vote on the Senate measure by the end of this month, before Congress adjourns for August recess.
House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., hailed the deal, calling it "great news" and "long overdue." But drilling supporters in the House complain the Senate proposal pushes the offshore debate back to where it was years ago, when the Clinton administration proposed opening up the 181 Area to exploration.
Despite the 125-mile buffer off Florida, some environmentalists were unhappy with the Senate deal.
"Today, Sen. Mel Martinez sold out Floridians and their coastline to Big Oil," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters.
From an industry perspective, Tom Kearns, director of public affairs for the National Ocean Industries Association, said that while his group was encouraged that senators were moving on legislation, it opposed the ban through 2022 on drilling 125 miles off the Florida coast.
"We don't think moratoriums are good public policy," he said.