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Senate panel votes to allow oil drilling in eastern Gulf of Mexico

Offshore oil and gas rigs could move dramatically closer to Florida's coastline — nearly within sight of pristine Panhandle beaches — under a provision approved Tuesday by a key Senate panel.

The amendment, tacked onto a massive energy bill in Congress, would renege on a compromise won by Florida lawmakers just three years ago and radically reduce no-drilling zones in the eastern Gulf of Mexico — from 125 miles down to 10 miles off the Panhandle and from 235 miles down to 45 miles off Tampa and coastal communities to the south.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., vowed to fight the move with a filibuster if necessary.

''We're just simply not going to let this happen,'' Nelson told reporters after the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a provision proposed by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Environmentalists said the move would break the 2006 deal crafted by Florida's congressional delegation, which agreed to open about 8 million acres of the east-central Gulf to oil and gas development in exchange for putting a massive swath of federal waters closer to the state off-limits until at least 2022.

''This is treachery,'' said Mark Ferullo, executive director of Progress Florida, a nonprofit group based in St. Petersburg. ``It completely eviscerates the bigger zone of protection.''

Last year, Congress let lapse a 25-year-old ban on offshore drilling along most of the nation's continental shelf.

Dorgan argued there was no reason why the eastern Gulf off Florida should retain special protection. The panel rejected another proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration.

Panhandle waters rank at the top of the energy industry's wish list -- particularly an area known as the Destin Dome. The industry believes area, within 10 miles of Pensacola and close to existing pipelines and plants, holds 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- enough to heat 2 million homes for 15 years.

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, praised the move in a statement: ``Sen. Dorgan's amendment stands to help the American people by creating new jobs, adding new energy resources and providing new revenues to federal, state and local governments.''

With modern drilling technology built to tap deeper waters, the energy industry says it can reach undiscovered reserves with little risk to Florida's environment. Environmentalists contend more platforms and wells would raise risks no matter how far offshore the drilling is, spawning a massive industrial operation with freighters, pipelines and onshore tanks and refineries.

Nelson said opening the eastern Gulf also could hamper military flight training in an weapons range that stretches across the Gulf and do little to end the see-saw swing of fuel prices that he blamed on speculators.

''Until we stop that, we'll continue to be gouged at the pump,'' Nelson said in a release. ``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.''

Political pressure has been mounting to ease the ban on drilling off Florida, driven in part by rising fuel prices. Last month, the Florida House approved a proposal by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, that would have allowed oil and gas exploration within three miles of the coast. It died in the state Senate. Polls during the presidential campaign also showed a majority of Floridians would support some exploration.

The White House is expected to offer its own offshore energy policy in the coming months.

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