Congress

Senators push to bring oil drilling closer to Florida's coast

The West Coast of Florida.
The West Coast of Florida. David Walters/Miami Herald/MCT

WASHINGTON — Two senators from oil-producing states have introduced legislation that would bring oil drilling to within 45 miles of Florida's coast.

The bill sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., would void a 2006 law crafted by Florida's congressional delegation that put a massive swath of federal waters surrounding the state off-limits until at least 2022.

The sponsors said Monday that the legislation would benefit states by giving them a cut — 37.5 percent — of the revenue from offshore oil and gas exploration off their coasts.

However, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who's already threatened to filibuster a similar Senate bill that also aims to open up the eastern Gulf, decried the bill as a giveaway to the oil industry.

"This isn't even thinly veiled," Nelson said. "It's an oil industry bailout plan. And it's Alaska and Louisiana's senators plan to boost their own revenues in tough economic times. But even in the toughest of times, there are some things states shouldn't sell out, like Florida's economy and environment."

Nelson's office said the proposal resembles an amendment in a Senate energy bill that would permit rigs within 45 miles off Florida's Gulf coast. That provision, written by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., also opens up the Panhandle's Destin Dome, a massive geological formation that energy companies have long eyed. The industry thinks the area holds 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — enough to heat 2 million homes for 15 years.

The 2006 compromise set a no-drilling "buffer" zone at 125 miles off the Panhandle coast and 235 miles from Tampa and the coastal communities to the south.

Landrieu and Murkowski argue that existing federal data estimate that the Outer Continental Shelf holds considerable reserves of oil and natural gas.

"At a time when we are struggling to create jobs and produce affordable energy, ignoring the immense natural resources just off our shores is inexcusable," Murkowski said.

The bill comes as environmentalists and most of Florida's congressional delegation are already looking to fend off the Dorgan amendment, which doesn't include a revenue sharing provision.

Pressure has increased to allow drilling off Florida's shore, driven in part by rising fuel prices. The Florida House in May approved a proposal that would've allowed oil and gas exploration within three miles of the coast. It died in the state Senate, but a revenue leasing provision could embolden legislators to reconsider the bill.

Jackie Savitz, the senior director of the environmental group Oceana's climate and energy campaign, said the organization fears Dorgan's provision could become part of the Senate climate change bill that is expected to be debated when Congress returns from its August break. Oceana is asking its members to write and call their senators to block the Dorgan provision, arguing that exploring for gas and oil could imperil Florida beaches and runs counter to efforts to address climate change.

"We're taking August to generate attention on this," she said. "By September we're afraid a lot of decisions are going to have been made."

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