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by Mark Weisenmiller

Alaska Pipeline Closure Revives Energy Policy Debate

(IPS) TAMPA -- The issue of whether or not oil companies should be allowed to drill off the coast of Florida -- especially along the Gulf of Mexico -- is creating political friction for state and federal government politicians alike.

The Security and Fuel Efficiency Energy Act, a 53-page bill, would permit oil companies to drill for oil as close as 45 miles (72 km) from the Gulf Coast of Florida and the waters of Cuba. The bill was co-written by Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota).

The bill is a direct challenge to a "buffer-zone" compromise bill approved last fall, which would prohibit drilling 125 miles (201 km) south of Pensacola and 235 miles (378 km) west of Tampa Bay on the Gulf side of Florida. The "buffer-zone" bill was created by the state's two U.S. Senators, Bill Nelson (Democrat) and Mel Martinez (Republican).

No one person, organization or government department seems to know for certain how much natural gas and undiscovered oil lies beneath the Gulf of Mexico -- the location of the drilling area for the proposed Craig-Dorgan bill -- but a "best guess" estimate is that the outer-rim continental section of the body of water has an estimated 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Both of those figures come from the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

"Florida continues to support a buffer of at least 100 miles (161 km) along our entire coastline to protect the state's pristine beaches, which form the foundation of Florida's tourism-based economy and our great quality of life," reads a statement about the Craig-Dorgan bill by Sarah P. Williams, Florida Department of Environmental Protection press secretary.

That "tourism-based economy and great quality of life" brought 65 million dollars into Florida in 2006, according to the state-run marketing office known as Visit Florida.

"One of the challenges is that the (Craig-Dorgan) bill is so broad that it is broken up into three different (U.S. congressional) committees," said Dan Whiting, Senator Craig's press secretary. "So far the bill is in front of the Energy Committee, which had its first hearing about it last week, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the Finance Committee, and it may even be broken up more."

As could be expected, the Craig-Dorgan bill has produced yet another battle between environmentalists and energy companies.

"We feel that Florida's coastlines should be protected, no matter what," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental organization.

"We were against Nelson and Martinez's bill last year, but this (Craig-Dorgan) bill adds insult to injury. To have this cynical ploy of trying to tie oil drilling to things that we should be doing already, such as incorporating fuel efficiency into our everyday lives, is just untruthful," she said.

Sittenfeld was referring to such items in the bill as requirements for creating more non-corn source ethanol and tax inducements for fuel-efficient automobiles.

Aaron Bernstein, manager of public affairs and communications for the Independent Petroleum Associates of America (IPAA), which represents thousands of independent oil and natural gas producers and service companies across the United States, said "We support the bill. It recognizes that energy resources begin here at home."

The United States is "the only country that restricts getting energy resources off its shores. The more we can develop, the better," he added.

Two members of the Florida state legislature, Republican Senator Mike Bennett and Democratic Representative Mary Bradenburg, introduced a state bill that would put the "to drill or not to drill" question to a referendum.

"We wanted to send a strong message to the Congress. Both the oil and natural gas company lobbyists visited me (at the state capitol in Tallahassee) and both told me that our bill would be opposed by them. And that's what they did," explained Bradenburg.

"This bill isn't going to move forward in this legislative session, but that's because it takes a while to get big issues moving in politics," she said. "We have to talk about these issues, and think them through, and then slowly, surely, things begin to happen."

Senator Nelson, meanwhile, told IPS that "we've been through all of this for the past six years and settled it last year. The statutory provision of the bill we created last year allowed for drilling in 8.3 million acres (3.4 million hectares) of the Gulf of Mexico, when the original area was 3.8 million acres (1.5 million hectares). Our buffer-zone kept it (possible oil and natural gas drilling) away from our beautiful coastlines."

He said "the Craig-Dorgan bill has some good things in it which I approve of, but that provision for allowing drilling 45 miles off of the coasts isn't enough to offset the entire bill."

In mid-March, while in Pensacola, Florida to create public opposition to the Craig-Dorgan bill, Nelson said "There's no way we're going to let oil companies drill off of Florida -- period... There is not enough oil there to justify the risk of a spill that would destroy the state's tourism-driven economy and impede military training in the area."

Speaking on behalf of the IPAA, Bernstein countered Nelson's opposition: "The bill can help America's thirst for oil and energy. You have to realise that both China and India may start to do more oil and energy development business with Cuba, which is only 90 miles (145 km) away from American shores, when we (the U.S.) can be using and developing these same oil and natural gas resources."

U.S. companies cannot do business with Cuba due to a four-decade embargo against the socialist Caribbean island nation. That means they cannot drill anywhere in the 43,250 square miles (112,000 square km) of waters off of Cuba which President Fidel Castro opened up to exploration by foreign countries in 1999.

Nelson also discussed another reason that would deter oil companies from drilling in Florida waters: the U.S. presidential elections in 2008. "I don't think that any of the presidential candidates, regardless of their political party, are going to go down to Florida and say in a public speech that they are for oil drilling only 45 miles off the coasts because they're going to want to get as many votes as possible," he maintained.

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Albion Monitor   April 22, 2007   (

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