Florida environmentalists blast Obama oil plan

WASHINGTON - Florida environmentalists are blasting the Obama administration's plans to expand offshore oil drilling, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast.

President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are to unveil the plan today at Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility. Various news reports say the plan includes allowing drilling beyond 125 miles off Florida's Gulf coastline, as well as studying the possibility of drilling off the mid- and southern Atlantic coasts.

Environment Florida, which has opposed past efforts to lift bans on offshore oil drilling, panned the news.

"Offshore drilling, especially drilling as close as 4 miles from Florida's Atlantic beaches, tastes bad no matter which president from whatever party is serving it," said Mark Ferrulo, director of Progress Florida. "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."

Obama is hoping to get support from Republicans for a climate change bill, but 10 coastal state Democrats - including Florida's Bill Nelson, who has vehemntly opposed offshore drilling -- say they won't support a big expansion of drilling. But 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.

"Environment Florida is outraged by today's announcement on offshore drilling,: said Adam Rivera, Environment Florida advocate. "It makes no sense to threaten Florida's coastline with spills and other drilling disasters when the Obama Administration is about to unleash the real solutions to oil dependence -- cleaner cars and cleaner fuels."

But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who has vehemently 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."

But 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."

Gas and oil producers welcomed the decision with Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, calling it a "welcomed first step." But he added that the administration needed 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."