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Environmentalists attack Obama plan to allow oil drilling off Florida's coasts

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama announced plans Wednesday to expand offshore oil drilling, including in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast, saying it wasn't a ``decision that I've made lightly.''

``The bottom line,'' Obama said, ``is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth, produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we're going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.''

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the administration would ``responsibly expand'' drilling in new areas like the eastern Gulf of Mexico, 125 miles off Florida's coast, as well as in the Atlantic as far south as Central Florida.

Environmentalists who have opposed past efforts to lift bans on offshore oil drilling quickly hammered the proposal.

``Offshore drilling, especially drilling as close as four miles from Florida's Atlantic beaches, tastes bad no matter which president from whatever party is serving it,'' said Progress Florida's Mark Ferrulo. ``The president's support doesn't change the facts. Expanded drilling won't lower gas prices and it represents a dirty and dangerous activity that risks catastrophic damage to our beloved beaches.''

Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America called the plan a ``welcomed first step,'' but added that the administration needs to move quickly on the offshore leasing process, which can take years.

``Otherwise,'' Russell said, ``the U.S. will continue to further its dependence on foreign resources and send more American dollars overseas.''

Obama is hoping to get support from Republicans for a climate change bill, but 10 coastal state Democrats say they won't support a big expansion of drilling.

But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who has vehmently opposed offshore oil drilling, suggested the plan takes Florida into account. He said he had talked to Salazar ``many times,'' telling him that if drilling took place too close to Florida's beaches ``they'd be risking the state's economy and the environment.

``I believe this plan shows they heeded that concern,'' Nelson said, adding that it should ``derail the scheme in the Florida Legislature to drill three miles offshore.''

Nelson said he still wants to hear from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

``And I want him to look me in the eye and assure me that this plan will not compromise national security by interfering with the unfettered space we have for training and testing our most sophisticated military weapons systems.''

Florida's congressional delegation is no longer united against drilling: Republican Sen. George LeMieux has suggested he'd support offshore drilling if Florida could get a cut of the proceeds.

LeMieux was among a group of senators invited to the White House earlier this month to talk energy with Obama, Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

This report was supplemented by the Associated Press.

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