There is a rhythm to summer that has become as predictable in Washington as it is predatory and senseless: Schools let out, vacation season begins, gas prices rise and opportunists in Congress — encouraged by Big Oil — cite the pain at the pump to push for expanding offshore drilling, jeopardizing Florida's priceless coastline.
Do any of the 13 members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who voted to expand drilling Tuesday realize that the nation is moving in the opposite direction and seeking to reduce reliance on fossil fuels with a cleaner energy policy?
The committee approved an amendment to a Senate energy bill that would allow gas and oil drilling just 45 miles off Florida's west coast and even closer off the Florida Panhandle. It would wipe out a 2006 congressional compromise that bans drilling within 230 miles of Tampa Bay and 100 miles of the Panhandle through 2022. That exclusion zone is a reasonable line of defense. Florida's beaches are vital to the state's status as a world-class tourist destination. Allowing drilling within 10 miles of the eastern Gulf Coast also would jeopardize an important training area for the Air Force and Navy.
As an energy strategy, the measure makes the Senate look hopelessly out of date. Twenty-eight states, in the absence of leadership in Washington, have set targets for renewable energy production. The purpose of energy legislation in both houses of Congress is to fashion a way to leverage billions of tax dollars to curb emissions of global-warming greenhouse gases, build more fuel-efficient cars and to foster investment in alternative energies.
The drilling amendment is an example of a time-honored tactic of tacking on something distasteful to broadly supported legislation. The bill, which committee members expect to pass today, also unfortunately encourages some Republican state legislators who have unsuccessfully sought to open state waters in the gulf to drilling. If the 2006 federal line falls, there will be no stopping the shortsighted in Tallahassee.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has vowed to filibuster the bill if it comes to that. The state's congressional delegation needs to show united opposition, and House members need to demand Speaker Nancy Pelosi stand by her commitment to the 2006 drill-free zone. Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running to succeed Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., also needs to quit waffling and oppose this. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates should explain the implications for naval training and national security should offshore rigs and their attendant infrastructure spring up along the training ranges for America's military pilots. The energy bill is supposed to chart a new strategy going forward. The Senate is headed backward.