WASHINGTON — Just in time to face irate voters back home during their Independence Day recess, Senate Republicans on Thursday introduced a wide-ranging bill designed to open most of the U.S. coast to oil and natural gas drilling.
The bill, optimistically dubbed the Gas Prices Reduction Act of 2008, includes a provision to foster development of batteries and would allow states to allow drilling as close as 50 miles offshore, including Florida's eastern and southern coasts.
The bill would exempt the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which is covered by a 2006 law banning drilling 125 miles off Florida's Panhandle and more than 200 miles off the state's west-central coast.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who helped negotiate the 2006 bill for Florida's west coast, said he is co-sponsoring the measure because he believes it offers adequate protection for Florida's beaches.
"From my standpoint, it's something I could live with," he said. "I have a lot of confidence in the governor and a lot of confidence in the state Legislature" to protect Florida's beaches.
The Republican proposal is essentially the congressional manifestation of the energy policy the party's presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has been touting over the past two weeks, a legislative assist from his pals in the Senate.
Like McCain, the bill calls for lifting the federal ban on offshore drilling that covers most of the U.S. coast. Also in keeping with McCain's proposal, it does not call for opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling — something that is usually a stock part of Republican energy plans.
McCain has not specifically addressed the current protections for Florida's west coast, but Martinez said, "I believe he will be addressing that in the coming days," and that McCain's position "will dovetail with what I'm saying today."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said exempting ANWR and giving states the power to choose whether to drill was designed to help attract Democratic support. But no Democrats rushed to endorse the bill.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a leading opponent of offshore drilling, said, "To call this legislation the 'Gas Price Reduction Act' is cruelly misleading."
He referenced a 2007 federal Energy Information Administration report concluding that opening more of the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling will not have an immediate or significant impact on gas prices.
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.