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Offshore drilling permits denied

Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet voted Tuesday to deny four offshore oil drilling permits in a case virtually certain to be settled in the courts.

The unanimous vote rejected Coastal Petroleum Co. proposals for exploratory wells off St. George Island in Franklin County, South Venice in Sarasota County, Punta Gorda Beach in Charlotte County and Naples in Collier County.

Coastal president Phillip Ware said his company wasn't really pursuing Cabinet permits, preferring to await the outcome of an administrative appeal over a fifth proposed well. The one-page applications contained almost none of the documentation required for approval.

"Once the appeal is done, we'll go ahead and do the environmental studies," Ware said. "We realize they are woefully inadequate."

The four permits were placed on Tuesday's agenda partly because it was the last meeting of Chiles and the Cabinet before the new Department of Environmental Protection is to be created out of two state agencies. That department will have greater powers to consider such applications.

Chiles said it appeared that Coastal was simply building a record for its lawsuit against the state over leases it has held since 1947 from Apalachicola to Naples.

"It seems like to me you are protecting your appeals process and protecting your litigation rights," Chiles said. "You seem to be doing it to protect some kind of record."

Coastal sued the state in 1990 over a policy adopted by former Gov. Bob Martinez and the Cabinet to prevent offshore drilling in state waters. A Leon County Circuit judge told Coastal to ask for a permit before proceeding with the lawsuit, which is pending. It seeks compensation for the leases.

Ware said Coastal is serious about drilling for oil and natural gas off Florida's coast.

"The company would much prefer not to go through this rigamarole," he said. "The state has forced us to litigate the validity of our leases."

In other action, Chiles and the Cabinet voted unanimously for a rule establishing manatee protection speed zones in the Lake Worth Creek and the southern Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach County.

Under the rule, the speed limit would be 30 mph in June, July, August and September to allow more water sports and 25 mph the rest of the year. The limits would apply only outside a year-round slow-speed buffer zone within 50 feet of any manatee.