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Florida Democrats reminded House leaders of no-drilling protections enacted in a 2006 law.

WASHINGTON — It's hard to believe this worked.

Tuesday, Florida's Gulf Coast was in the sights of House Democratic leaders crafting a bill to expand offshore oil and gas exploration.

By Wednesday, Florida Democrats apparently had convinced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Florida gave up enough in 2006, when Congress passed a compromise bill that opened 8.3-million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to drilling in exchange for significant protections closer to shore.

"I think we're good," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, as she left a closed meeting of House Democrats. "All signs point to they're now coming to realize that gosh, yes, in 2006 the state of Florida gave up more than 8-million acres, it's codified in law, and the military mission line is important."

She and other members stressed nothing is guaranteed until Democrats agree on the full package. "My present understanding is the 2006 language ... protects those of us who had concerns," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar.

Aides to Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer confirmed the eastern Gulf of Mexico will remain off limits.

Castor began making her case to House leaders last month, as it became increasingly likely that Democrats would break with their long-held opposition to expanding offshore oil and natural gas exploration and vote this month on a comprehensive energy package that will include more drilling.

As Democrats hammered out the bill's parameters during a closed meeting Tuesday, Castor and other Florida Democrats argued that Florida had already been forced to compromise in 2006 and that it was too soon to dismantle that law.

The law, which was passed after weeks of difficult negotiations, bans drilling in the U.S. military's training zone in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, a giant swath of water east of a line running from near Pensacola to the Keys.

Everything within 234 miles off Tampa Bay and 125 miles off the Panhandle is off limits to drilling through 2022 — provided Congress doesn't change it.

All nine Florida Democrats in the U.S. House met twice with Pelosi on Wednesday and again argued against changing the status quo. By the time the full House Democratic caucus met in the late afternoon, the Floridians were hearing the 2006 deal will stand. Waters off other states, including the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia, will likely be opened, and more states could be affected as well, members and aides said.

In addition to more drilling, the package also will set new standards for renewable energy use, repeal tax breaks given to oil companies, and invest billions of dollars in royalties that oil companies pay for drilling rights into the development of alternative energy. A vote is expected next week.

Republicans generally oppose repealing the oil companies' tax breaks, and contend the bill will not allow enough drilling.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Roberts Gates has asked the Navy to review its use of the eastern gulf training zone, to determine if the boundaries should change or if some portions could be used for energy exploration.

But Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, the top Republican on the House panel that controls military funding, said a deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, Donald Schregardus, met with him Wednesday and told him the area is critical to the Navy and Air Force.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 306-4807.

Florida Democrats reminded House leaders of no-drilling protections enacted in a 2006 law. 09/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 5:51pm]
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