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U.S. Senate panel OKs drilling in Eastern Gulf

WASHINGTON — A Senate committee Tuesday approved opening the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling within 45 miles of Florida’s west coast and to within 10 miles of the Panhandle.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 13-10 to attach the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to the overall energy bill the panel is working on this week.

But Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has battled previous attempts to open Florida’s coastal waters to drilling, attended part of Tuesday’s hearing and vowed to filibuster the energy legislation on the Senate floor if the amendment is not stripped off the bill.

Nelson said the eastern Gulf of Mexico is vital for military training and national security.

“The operative policy and law of the United States is to use much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico as the last remaining training range for our military pilots,” Nelson said. “Give that up to the oil boys and you sacrifice national security.”

Nelson added that rising gasoline prices are due to speculators, “who behave like condo-flippers.

“Until we stop that, we’ll continue to be gouged at the pump,” Nelson said. “Congress ought to be looking at that, and at a real alternative energy program — instead of trying to put oil rigs off the world-class tourist spots all along Florida’s coast.”

The resurgence of the Gulf drilling proposal at the national level has area lawmakers, environmentalist and business owners concerned.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, whose district includes a portion of Manatee County, called drilling off the near coast of Florida a risky proposition for the state’s economy and environment.

Last year, Castor noted, the Florida delegation compromised and opened 8.3 million acres to oil exploration, and now the oil industry was coming after more.

“Those greedy oil companies have no shame,” she said. “They need to go and drill on the millions of acres where there are known oil deposits before putting Florida’s economy at risk.”

Caster could not predict how the Senate panel’s action will be received in the House.

The House Energy and Conservation Committee, of which Caster is a member, approved an energy bill that will go to the floor in two weeks.

“Our focus was on the future,” she said. “We have a new policy of promoting alternative energy and conservation.”

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, also said in a statement Tuesday that there are other places to drill before the Gulf is tapped.

“I support environmentally safe domestic drilling as part of a balanced policy to meet our energy needs.,” Buchanan’s statement read. “We should be drilling now in places such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which holds the single largest deposit of oil in the entire United States.

“But I don’t support expanded drilling off the eastern Gulf of Mexico because it would threaten our natural resources and jeopardize our tourism-based economy.”

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., was taking a wait-and-see position on the Senate committee’s actions.

“We’re going to watch and see how it develops,” said Jessica Garcia, press secretary for Martinez. “It appears there is a lot of time between now and when anything comes to the floor.”

Nelson and Martinez teamed up in 2006 to secure a compromise that prevents drilling in the eastern Gulf through 2022. As part of that deal, an additional 8.3 million acres in the east-central Gulf were open to drilling.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who voted against a state House bill in the last days of the legislative session to allow drilling in the Gulf, also said there is a need to develop alternative energy sources.

“My position is that the call for drilling in the Gulf over-simplifies the issue,” Galvano said. “It’s an infrastructure problem, not the availability of oil” that has increased the price of gasoline.

He said the last oil refinery built in the United States was at least two decades ago.

“Also, there are approved drilling sites that have not been utilized,” Galvano said. “When talking about drilling in the Gulf, people assume it will result in lower gas prices.”

Those opposed to drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast are concerned about two issues: the threat to the tourist economy and the environment.

Ken Gerry Jr., owner and manager of White Sands Beach Resort in Holmes Beach, said oil drilling near the shore would be devastating to his business.

“Some of our customers come from Texas,” Gerry said, “and one, who is 50 years old, said for the first 20 years of his life he thought tar balls on the beach was normal.”

He said the proponents of drilling say they have new technology to clean up oil spills, but nothing is 100 percent effective.

“Do we want to exchange our white sand for tar balls?” Gerry asked.

The Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce board has voiced its opposition to the prospect of oil rigs in the Gulf.

“We don’t want to chance a spill and ruin our tourism economy,” said Mary Ann Brockman, chamber executive director. “The only thing we have are our beaches.”

The oil and gas industry praised Tuesday’s vote and urged that Congress expand access to energy-rich areas in the eastern Gulf.

“What that means in practice is the potential for vast new energy to come online quickly — which in turn means thousands of additional jobs, billions in new revenues, and a significant lessening of our dangerous dependence on foreign energy,” said Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “In the eastern Gulf, we’re talking about an area with trillions of cubic feet of American gas, and potentially billions of barrels of American oil. And the best part is: Every bit of it resides in areas in proximity to existing pipelines and needed infrastructure.”

But area environmentalists voiced their concerns about the impact of a potential oil spill.

There have been no studies on the direction an oil spill would drift, and without it Manatee County’s environment could be at risk, said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, a local environmental organization.

“Decisions are being made without a full understanding of the ramifications of offshore drilling,” he said.

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