By H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — A Senate committee on Tuesday approved opening the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, including an area rich with natural gas 10 miles off the Florida Panhandle. A 45-mile no-drilling buffer would be maintained off most of Florida’s coast.
The provision was tacked onto a broader energy bill by a vote of 13-10 in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The committee was expected to advance the legislation later this week.
The eastern Gulf of Mexico – an area stretching from 125 to 300 miles off Florida’s coast – was singled out for protection by Congress in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida lawmakers that made available 8.3 million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf. The protected region is to remain off limits to energy development until 2022.
But the Energy panel on Tuesday approved a provision offered by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that would end the drilling ban across most of the eastern Gulf waters, including in an area known as the Destin Dome which reaches within 10 miles off Pensacola, Fla., and is believed to have as much as 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Later, the committee rejected by a 10-13 vote a proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the panel’s top Republican, to allow access to oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by drilling for it from outside the refuge. Environmentalists, as well as many senators, argue that the refuge should be protected from drilling. Murkowski argued that so-called “direction drilling” from outside the refuge boundary would not disturb wildlife or the environment.
Congress last year ended a quarter century old drilling ban that had prevented energy development along 85 percent of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf from New England to the Pacific Northwest. However, the eastern Gulf region remains off limits under the 2006 law.
Dorgan argued that there’s no reason why the eastern Gulf, including the Destin Dome area, should stay off limits with its close proximity to existing oil and gas drilling and pipeline systems in the central and western Gulf.
But adding the controversial drilling provision is likely to make it even more difficult to get the energy legislation through the Senate later this year.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he and a number of other senators will filibuster the bill if the drilling provision isn’t removed. Such a parliamentary stalling tactic requires 60 votes to overcome.
Nelson, who rushed to the committee room to observe the vote and talk to reporters, said opening the eastern Gulf would allow oil and gas rigs to be erected in the midst of a military training and aircraft firing range that stretches across the eastern Gulf waters.
“We’re just simply not going to let this happen,” Nelson told reporters.
The measure passed with bipartisan support including the backing of Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the committee chairman.
Ironically, it didn’t get the support of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Murkowski, both of whom are ardent advocates for expanding offshore oil and gas development. They voted against Dorgan because his proposal did not include revenue sharing with the coastal states.
A proposal, offered by Landrieu that would have given 37.5 percent of revenues collected from oil and gas development in the eastern Gulf to nearby states, was defeated 10-13.
Landrieu said she would pursue the revenue sharing issue when the energy legislation reaches the Senate floor. Dorgan acknowledged some revenue sharing likely would be necessary. Opponents to revenue sharing, including Bingaman, have argued that offshore energy resources are federal resources and that in this period of growing deficits the U.S. Treasury needs all the cash it can get.