Senate vote brings drilling in gulf closer
Florida lawmakers fight to stop the sale of oil and gas leases until April but fail in a 67-33 vote
July 13, 2001
By John Balz
St. Petersburg Times
WASHINGTON -- The gap between the drill bit and the ocean floor closed Thursday as the Senate upheld the sale of oil and gas leases in Area 181 of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
By a 67-33 vote, senators rejected an attempt by Florida lawmakers to block the sale of drilling leases until April. Although the House passed a similar measure last month, it is likely to be dropped from the final legislation.
"As a practical matter, the Bush White House has won on the drilling in this million and a half acres," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who submitted the measure as an amendment to the spending bill for the Interior Department.
About 1.5-million acres is what is left of Area 181 after Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced plans this month to sell oil and gas leases in a drastically reduced portion of the tract. The reduced tract is 100 miles from Pensacola and 285 miles from Tampa Bay. The administration originally wanted to drill in a 5.9-million acre tract that came as close as 17 miles from Pensacola.
Also on Thursday, the Senate, on a voice vote, confirmed J. Steven Griles to the No. 2 position at the Department of Interior. Nelson was blocking Griles' nomination because of Griles' position on offshore drilling but relented after a discussion with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
The drilling ban's defeat marked a shift in momentum toward expanding drilling in the gulf -- momentum that has been building since the compromise on 181 was reached -- and a shot in the arm for the president's energy plan. Across the Mall, the decision to offer leases in Area 181 became official with the Mineral Management Services issuing a formal notice of sale to be held in December. Interior officials expect exploratory wells to be dug within three years.
After more than 21/2 hours of debate on Nelson's amendment Wednesday, the Senate moved to a vote after just four minutes of discussion Thursday morning. Senators in favor of drilling, mostly from oil-producing states bordering the gulf, again argued that energy production can be done safely and efficiently. Florida senators say drilling in 181 would represent a serious risk to the state's economic and environmental lifeblood.
Eighteen Democrats joined all Republican senators to kill the proposed ban in what Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called bipartisan opposition. Among the Democrats voting against the measure were Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Later in the evening, the Senate approved the $18.7-billion Interior appropriations package.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a co-sponsor of the amendment, called the loss disappointing, and fretted about the potential dangers of granting leases without conducting a proper environmental review. Mineral Management Services recently released a study of the 5.9-million-acre Area 181 concluding that the risk of an oil spill was between 5 percent and 37 percent.
After the vote, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said that drilling in the reduced 181 represents a "balanced" approach to oil and gas production, but that winning future votes on energy legislation would be a challenge for the president.
The White House lobbied senators, especially Republicans, hard to vote against the amendment, sending out a two-page set of talking points that called the compromise comprehensive and forward-looking.
"Today's vote is a victory for all Americans who want to see environmentally responsible energy production," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
The drilling debate now turns away from Area 181 and toward other sections of the eastern gulf. The next battle is likely to be over an area 35 miles south of Pensacola known as the Destin Dome site, where Chevron Corp. holds leases to drill for natural gas. The Commerce Department is expected to decide shortly if that drilling can go forward. Graham and Nelson say they are devising a strategy to stop it, possibly having the federal government agree to buy the outstanding leases.
Graham and Nelson also have submitted a bill to issue a permanent ban on drilling in the outer continental shelf off Florida, which could be considered this year when the Senate votes on a broad national energy policy.
Nelson met with Griles in his office for about 35 minutes Thursday morning. Nelson said he asked for an assurance that the Interior Department would not seek to expand drilling beyond the reduced Area 181.
Griles departed after promising to get back in touch with Nelson later in the day. Some 90 minutes later, Nelson got an impromptu visit from Interior Secretary Norton, who was appearing on Capitol Hill to push the president's energy plan.
"She said, "Senator, I want to assure you that in the (department's) five-year plan there will be no additional lease sales,' " said Nelson, who has been carrying a map of Gulf of Mexico drilling sites in his jacket's breast pocket the past few days.
Despite calling Griles a "gracious and engaging fellow," Nelson voted against his confirmation.