WASHINGTON — Despite bitter objections that it didn't go nearly far enough, the House voted Tuesday to allow oil and gas drilling closer to the nation's shores, except along Florida's west coast.
Florida Democrats hailed the energy bill because it would shelter their state from rigs while encouraging development of alternative sources, such as solar, wind and ethanol.
The bill would allow drilling up to 100 miles from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and up to 50 miles if affected states agree to it. The bill, however, would preserve a ban on drilling for 125 miles or more along the Gulf Coast of Florida.
"This legislation has the potential to dramatically reduce gas prices and set our country on a path to energy independence," Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., told the House.
But many Republicans called the bill a phony designed to fool the public into thinking that Congress is doing something to help reduce fuel prices. The bill would leave 85 percent of potential oil and gas supplies off limits, critics said, much of them in the eastern gulf near Florida.
"It is a political gimmick. It is a sham on the American people. Shame on this House," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.
Florida is the center of attention because it's a gas-guzzling state whose tourism economy relies on clean water and beaches that stretch near much-coveted deposits of natural gas. The focus is on the state's west coast, because the deep waters along the east coast would be expensive to drill and are believed to contain relatively little oil or gas.
"The eastern gulf is very important," said David Mica, director of the Florida Petroleum Council, a Tallahassee-based oil industry group. "We know that south of the Panhandle, about 30 miles out, lie as much as 3-trillion cubic feet of clean-burning, low-carbon natural gas. That's enough to supply the electric generating needs of a city the size of Tallahassee for more than 140 years."
The recent spike in fuel prices prompted the industry and its many friends in Congress to renew efforts to tap the eastern gulf. It also prompted Republican presidential candidate John McCain to reverse his position and call for more drilling if Florida and other states agree to it.
Oil companies pay millions for the right to search for energy in federal waters, and McCain's plan would tempt states to allow drilling by giving them a piece of these royalties.
Gov. Charlie Crist and most Florida Republicans in Congress backed McCain's proposal.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama reluctantly said he could accept a limited expansion of drilling if it was accompanied by conservation measures and development of alternative fuels.
The bill drew a veto threat from the White House, which contended that it doesn't go far enough to generate new domestic supplies of oil and natural gas and objected to a number of its other provisions, including the repeal of oil industry tax breaks.
Its prospects are uncertain in the Senate, which might begin debating energy legislation as early as today.
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.