ST. PETERSBURG — Long an opponent of offshore drilling, Sen. Barack Obama offered encouraging words for a bipartisan energy plan that would permit oil drilling within 50 miles of Florida's west coast.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9's Political Connections this morning, Obama commended the self-styled "Gang of 10" senators who earlier in the day introduced a broad energy bill that also would funnel billions into developing renewable sources.
"My attitude is that we can find some sort of compromise," Obama told the Times shortly after talking with voters at Gibbs High School. "If it is part of an overarching package, then I am not going to be rigid in preventing an energy package that goes forward that is really thoughtful and is going to really solve the problem."
Although short of an endorsement, Obama expressed a new willingness to consider the U.S. coast for oil exploration.
This morning at the U.S. Capitol, five Democrats and five Republicans announced a comprehensive energy plan designed to break the gridlock over energy policy that has nearly brought the Senate to a standstill in recent weeks.
It calls for allowing offshore drilling as close as 50 miles from Florida's west coast, which is currently protected by a 2006 law banning drilling within about 230 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles from the Panhandle.
Drilling would also be allowed 50 miles off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia if their state legislatures allowed it. Florida would have no say over the matter because Senate advocates think the eastern Gulf of Mexico offers the best chance to get more oil and natural gas to market quickly.
Years-old surveys suggest recoverable reserves there, particularly of natural gas, and drilling operations in the eastern gulf could easily tap into existing pipelines and other infrastructure off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the senators said.
"It's only a logical extension of what's happening in the gulf" to the west, said U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the lead Republican sponsor of the plan.
U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, his Democratic counterpart, said, "We know that because of soundings that have already been made, there is tremendous potential in the eastern gulf."
If Obama were to formally embrace the plan, it would go a long way toward making passage possible this fall. One key reason Democrats in the Senate and House have been reluctant to support Republican challenges to allow more offshore drilling has been Obama's opposition. Congressional leaders of either party are unlikely to take a position on any major policy that runs counter to their presidential candidate's views.
In the interview, Obama reiterated his belief that "we are not going to drill our way out of this problem. We have 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. We use 25 percent of the world's oil.
"And what I've also said is, if people are expecting short-term relief because of offshore drilling, then they're not going to find it because we won't see a drop of oil for at least a decade."
Still, Obama's willingness to go along with any new drilling off the U.S. coast is a marked shift from his previous statements. Earlier this summer, Obama sought to distinguish himself from GOP rival Sen. John McCain, who wants to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling.
"And when I am president," Obama said in June in Chicago, "I will keep the moratorium in place and prevent oil companies from drilling off Florida's coasts. That's how we can protect our coasts and still make the investments that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and bring down gas prices for good."
This morning, Obama said this: "So what I want to do is just to make sure that we are putting together the kind of comprehensive plan that is going to work. And if you have a package that is offshore drilling only, which is essentially what Bush and McCain have been emphasizing, then I think that that is not going to solve the problem and I would be opposed to that."
Both of Florida's U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, oppose the idea on grounds that it's unfair to Florida.
But members of the Gang of 10 said they think the key to getting more drilling through the Senate is balance, so the bill also calls for spending $84-billion over 10 years on research and development of better batteries, fuels and energy-saving technologies, including tax incentives for people who buy hybrid and alternative-fueled cars and trucks.
The plan would be funded largely by the royalties that energy companies pay the government for the right to drill in federal waters, and the repeal of $30-billion in tax breaks given to oil and gas companies.
Republicans have long opposed repealing those tax breaks, saying they encourage oil companies to explore for more oil and gas. But with record oil company profits — ExxonMobile posted quarterly profits this week of $11-billion, for instance — the senators said that argument is getting tougher to make.
"With oil at these levels, we don't think the manufacturing credit is necessary to encourage them to explore for oil and gas," Conrad said.
Adam Smith reported from the Obama campaign in Florida. Wes Allison reported from Washington. Rob Farley contributed to this report.