Long an opponent of offshore drilling, Sen. Barack Obama offered encouraging words Friday for a bipartisan energy plan that would permit oil drilling within 50 miles of Florida's west coast.
The plan, offered Friday by 10 U.S. senators as a way to break the partisan impasse over energy policy that has stalled Congress in recent weeks, would expand drilling but also set new goals and establish new funding for the use of alternative fuels.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9's Political Connections on Friday morning, Obama commended the self-styled "Gang of 10" — five Democrats, five Republicans — for their cooperation and broad plan.
Obama didn't specifically endorse the bill, but his willingness to consider more oil drilling represents a significant change in position. And it dramatically alters prospects for the bill.
Republicans have been pushing for more drilling, but Democrats who control Congress have resisted. If Obama sees this plan as viable, congressional Democrats are likely to fall into line.
"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."
Sen. Kent Conrad of South Dakota, the leading Democratic negotiator, said he was "delighted to hear Sen. Obama's supportive comments."
At a campaign stop in Panama City, Sen. John McCain, a drilling proponent and Obama's GOP rival for president, didn't directly address the new proposal. He was unaware of Obama's shift and criticized him for having "no plan for addressing the energy challenges that we face."
The New Energy Reform Act of 2008 calls for spending $84-billion over 10 years on research and development of better batteries, fuels and energy-saving technologies and includes tax incentives for people who buy hybrid and alternative-fuel cars and trucks.
Funding would come largely from the royalties energy companies pay the government for the right to drill in federal waters, as well as closing loopholes and repealing tax breaks for oil and gas companies worth some $30-billion.
The bill doesn't address issues that have doomed past compromise attempts. Although the Southeast could be opened for drilling, the plan doesn't mention California, where political opposition remains firm. It doesn't mention drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another traditional flash point.
Nor would it clamp down on energy speculators, which some experts believe have helped drive rising oil prices. In recent days, congressional Democrats have been trying, unsuccessfully, to pass a bill that would more closely regulate the practice.
"We decided there were certain issues that were not going to get us to 60 votes," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the lead Republican negotiator. "Why should we put something in the package that was going to be a lightning rod?"
But the package does include one lightning rod: Florida.
Under the proposal, drilling for oil and natural gas would be permitted as close as 50 miles from Florida's west coast, which is currently protected by a 2006 ban on drilling within about 230 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles from the Panhandle.
Florida's east coast would be exempt. Drilling also would be allowed 50 miles off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia if their legislatures opt to allow it.
Florida would have no say in the matter, however, because Senate advocates believe the eastern Gulf of Mexico offers the best chance to get more oil and natural gas to market quickly.
In return, Florida would get up to 37.5 percent of the royalties energy companies pay for drilling rights as far as 200 miles into the gulf. Eventually, that could be worth millions of dollars per year, senators said.
In Florida, political opposition to drilling has softened as gas prices continue to rise, and a Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 60 percent of Floridians favor more offshore drilling.
However, support among Florida's elected officials has typically been predicated on giving the state Legislature final approval.
"Unfortunately, the proposal would eliminate Florida's 2006 gulf protections and give Floridians absolutely no voice in determining where exploration could occur," Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said Friday.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Senate Democratic leaders that any attempt to open the west coast to drilling would be met with a fight. Nelson said he will be working to educate Obama on the repercussions of drilling 50 miles off the coast.
"Fifty miles off the coast would cut the heart and the lungs out of the United States military, because the largest testing and training area for the Department of Defense in the world is the Gulf of Mexico off of Florida. ... That's something he needs to know."
A U.S. Energy Department study has found it will take years before gas and oil from the eastern gulf would come online, and the impact on prices would likely be negligible.
In Friday's 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."
Still, Obama's positive reaction to the plan is marked a shift from his previous statements. In June, Obama sought to distinguish himself from McCain, who had just called for lifting the 25-year-old federal moratorium on offshore drilling.
"And when I am president, I will keep the moratorium in place and prevent oil companies from drilling off Florida's coasts," Obama told reporters in Chicago then.
Times staff writers Alex Leary in Panama City and Robert Farley in St. Petersburg contributed to this report. Adam Smith reported from the Obama campaign in Florida. Wes Allison reported from Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 463-0577.
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