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Backtracking Obama administration closes eastern gulf to oil drilling

WASHINGTON — Reversing plans announced only weeks before the BP oil disaster, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will maintain a ban on drilling along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico off Florida.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Deepwater Horizon spill, which unleashed an estimated 172 million gallons of oil into the gulf, mandates a cautious new approach that relies on areas currently open to drilling.

"Our revised strategy lays out a careful, responsible path for meeting our nation's energy needs while protecting our oceans and coastal communities," he said.

The administration said it would focus on 29 million acres in the central and western gulf that are currently under lease for oil and natural gas drilling but are not utilized (there are 43 million acres in all) as well as planned future expansions in those areas.

Any new drilling would be subject to safety regulations put into place after the deadly explosion and spill.

The moratorium on the eastern gulf will remain in effect for seven years. It closes a huge swath of the territory that lies beyond the 125-mile area along the Florida coast that is already protected from drilling by federal law until 2022.

"The White House obviously learned lessons from the BP oil disaster," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who sharply criticized the original drilling plans.

In late March, the government announced plans to open up 25 million acres in the eastern gulf.

The change was subject to congressional approval, setting off a debate among environmentalists and lawmakers in Washington and Tallahassee. But the push-back was muted given rising energy prices and presidential campaign demands for more independence from foreign oil.

"The answer is not drilling everywhere all the time," Obama said at the time. "But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security."

Obama made a calculated decision, giving ground to pro-drilling forces in hopes that Congress would pass sweeping energy legislation that included a curb on greenhouse emissions.

Weeks later came the BP disaster, the shocks of which are still reverberating in the tourism, restaurant and seafood industries.

"Drilling for oil off of Florida's coast poses a threat to Florida's economy, jobs and environment," Castor said. "Our small-businesses and hotel owners are still suffering from the devastation left behind by the BP blowout."

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said the moratorium was a positive development. "A lot of who we are is clean water, clean beaches."

But other Florida Republicans were critical.

"I believe the administration's new policy is an obstacle to job creation and imperils our national security by making us more dependent on foreign oil from hostile regimes," said Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, suggesting politics were at play.

In Tallahassee, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, accused the president of "flip-flopping" but exploited wiggle room himself to leave the door open for drilling in state waters, now off limits.

"While now is not the time to open up new drilling because of this summer's gulf oil spill, taking it off the table is irresponsible," said Haridopolos, who had previously called the oil spill a "game changer" that would "permanently table this issue."

Gov.-elect Rick Scott, in Washington to meet with Florida's congressional delegation, said, "I absolutely oppose" the decision. He said drilling must be an option but did not go into specifics.

Drilling advocates have long desired the waters off Florida, and at one time much of the state stood in opposition.

In 2006, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., led the way on a compromise, nearly two years in the making, that opened 8.3 million acres in the eastern gulf and allowed exploration 125 miles south of the Panhandle, but banned drilling within 234 miles of the Tampa Bay area through 2022.

Obama's proposal in March would have opened up another 25 million acres in the gulf and shrank the buffer around the Tampa area to 125 miles.

"Four years ago Sen. (Mel) Martinez and I passed a law that keeps oil rigs at least 125 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico," Nelson said. "I'm glad the White House is listening to the people of Florida, and has decided not to allow any new oil drilling leases in the eastern gulf."

Gov. Charlie Crist said he was "very pleased" with the decision.

"The administration is to be credited again for trying to protect Florida's beaches," Crist said. "That's only good for Florida because we depend so heavily on tourism and agriculture. And the cleaner we can be, the better it is for our people and our state."

Bruce Vincent, head of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, called the move "an attack on the American economy and our nation's energy security." Noting Salazar's recent call to streamline permitting for wind energy development, he said the administration is more interested in "picking winners and losers in the energy market and waging an unbridled war on America's oil and natural gas producers than creating jobs and putting our nation on a path toward energy security.''

Meanwhile, environmentalists and coastal business and tourism officials exulted.

"Today is a victory for every Floridian who relishes the feeling of clean sugar-sand between their toes, the sight of stunning coastal vistas unmarred by oil slicks, and the chance to swim and fish in waters free of tar balls," said Sarah Bucci of Environment Florida.

D.T. Minich, Pinellas County's tourism director, was pleased, but concerned that legislators might revive plans for drilling 3 miles to 10 miles offshore.

Keith Overton, chief operating officer at the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach, said it would be political suicide for elected officials to open more of the gulf to drilling.

Some tourist businesses still support more drilling as a way to bring down gas prices and encourage more people to drive to the state, but Overton said: "If any benefit came out of the BP spill, it would be that drilling in state waters won't be taken up by the Legislature for a while. … Why risk a $65-billion industry for $700 million a year in new revenue? It doesn't make sense.''

He called the decision "great news, a victory for Florida.''

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Mary Ellen Klas and Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.

Backtracking Obama administration closes eastern gulf to oil drilling 12/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 11:16pm]
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