WASHINGTON — For years, it was one of the strongest arguments for blocking oil and gas drilling off Florida's west coast, particularly for conservatives who weren't fretting over the environment:
Putting rigs in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would compromise one of the nation's largest unobstructed test ranges for the U.S. military's air and sea forces.
But with a new drilling-friendly political climate and improved technology that allows wellheads and pumps to be placed in thousands of feet of water, senators pushing to open the eastern gulf to oil and natural gas exploration say the military is open to relaxing its long-standing opposition.
For weeks, Democratic and Republican staffers from the Senate have been meeting with the assistant secretary of the Air Force and other defense officials to discuss ways to permit drilling in the waters as close as 50 miles from Florida without hurting the military's ability to use the area for training.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the lead Republican in a bipartisan group of 10 senators who last week announced a comprehensive energy plan that calls for more offshore drilling, said that he also met recently with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and that Gates seemed amenable.
"They are willing to work with us to make sure we have the opportunity to explore for additional reserves in the eastern gulf," said Chambliss, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "That's being worked through."
The military's concerns helped Floridians in Congress wrangle a 2006 law that prohibits drilling within 125 miles of Pensacola and 234 miles of the Tampa Bay area.
But Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said he has asked the Defense Department to outline in writing how much of the eastern gulf it really needs. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Panhandle Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, has had similar discussions with the Air Force, said Dan McFaul, his chief of staff.
If the military can abide it, both members say they would favor drilling in the eastern gulf, though Young prefers a 100-mile buffer from shore.
"If they don't need that much protection for their military training activities, then I'm willing to negotiate," Young said. "Because 234 miles off our coast I don't think is necessary to protect our beaches."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a top opponent of drilling off Florida, also recently met with Gates to express his concerns about increasing exploration.
"Simply put, (Gates) told Nelson he wouldn't agree to anything that would degrade the military mission," spokesman Dan McLaughlin said. But McLaughlin acknowledged that leaves lots of wiggle room to allow more drilling. Gates and Nelson agreed to meet again next month. The Pentagon declined to comment.
The military's gulf test range includes all waters east of a line running from Hurlburt Field, near Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, south to the Keys. Jets from the naval air stations in Jacksonville and Pensacola use it, as do planes from Eglin and Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City. Aircraft carrier groups often practice maneuvers there.
But with gas now at $4 a gallon, pressure is building in Congress to increase supply, even though the government acknowledges that drilling in the gulf would have no near-term effect on gas prices and probably negligible effects in the long term.
Meanwhile, the offshore drilling industry has developed technology that allows oil companies to pump from wells without an above-sea platform. They move a portable drilling platform in place, drill the well, then sail the platform to the next job.
The wellhead and pumping stations are then placed on the sea floor, even in thousands of feet of water.
Known as subsea tie-backs, this approach allows companies to service multiple wells from a single platform or mother ship 40 miles away — like drilling in Lakeland and running the pipe to a platform in Tampa.
The key has been new techniques that keep oil and gas flowing even at extreme depths, where the water hovers near freezing, as well as remote-controlled underwater vehicles and robots that can construct and maintain equipment, experts said.
"You're still going to need to put drilling rigs in the area to actually put the well in place, but once that's complete you can use subsea tie-backs so you don't have anything above the surface," said Michael Kearns, a spokesman for the National Oceans Industry Association.
For many Republicans in Congress, like Miller, whose district includes Eglin, protecting the test range has been the main reason for joining Democrats in blocking drilling. Senators and congressional staffers meeting with the Pentagon say that if the Defense Department changes its position, they believe they could turn enough votes in Congress to open the waters off Florida.
"DOD has indicated that they are very interested in working out a compromise that will facilitate more domestic energy production," said Stephanie Allen, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a drilling proponent. "Our impression is that both sides are committed to reaching a workable alternative."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.