July 29, 2005 – The congressional push to drill for oil off Floridaâ€™s Gulf coast reached a climax this week as House and Senate negotiators worked to meet a compromise on a massive energy legislation package. While lawmakers worked to hammer out an agreement that could pass both chambers of Congress, the White House was pushing for new rules that would change Floridaâ€™s state boundaries at sea, opening a controversial area up for drilling despite major homegrown opposition to throughout the state.
Though the plan was derailed in last-minute bargaining, a controversial measure mandating an "inventory" of oil reserves off the coast of Florida, currently off-limits to drillers, did make it into the final joint version of the bill.
Last Friday, Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, released a leaked White House email that urged negotiating lawmakers to adopt a Bush administrationâ€™s plan to redraw offshore state boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico and grant Louisiana control over waters currently controlled by Florida.
The plan is also outlined in a press release put out by US Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton last week about the White House plan. "Under the legally accepted principle of â€˜equidistanceâ€™ used in the drawing of seaward lateral boundaries," stated the release, "the portions where new leasing would occur are off the coast of Louisiana, not Florida."
Drilling for oil is one issue that has historically united Florida politicians of both parties because it would put that stateâ€™s beaches â€“ a prime tourist attraction â€“ at risk. Even the plan to conduct an inventory of fossil fuels off the coast of Florida was staunchly opposed for fear that it will eventually lead to drilling and because of environmentalistsâ€™ predictions that the related seismic testing will harm sea animals.
During the back-door haggling over the proposed provision, pro-drilling lawmakers reportedly offered the Florida congressional delegation a deal that would have allowed the sunshine state to opt out of the inventory in exchange for allowing drilling in some areas currently off-limits.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, which interviewed Florida lawmakers who had participated in the negotiations, the proposed deal did not gain the support of key legislators from both parties.
The House passed the 1,725-page energy legislation yesterday by a vote of 275-to-156, largely along party lines, with 75 Democratic Representatives approving the measures. The Senate began debating the bill just hours after the House action and is expected to hold a vote today. The Congressional Budget Office projects the cost to be around $85 billion.