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Plan would ban new drilling leases off Fla.

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has pledged to prohibit new oil- and gas-drilling leases off Florida's coast past the turn of the century.

He would keep them at least 100 miles offshore and perhaps out of the eastern Gulf of Mexico entirely. His decision is part of a comprehensive policy governing offshore drilling for the years 1997 to 2002.

"I think there is a consensus in Florida against offshore leasing," Babbitt said Friday.

His word carries a great deal of weight.

The five-year plan, to be released for comment later this summer, will be official by early next year.

It would not affect companies that already have Florida offshore leases. For example, there are more than 100 leases off the Florida Panhandle. Chevron is seeking permits for exploratory drilling on the Destin Dome, an area south of Pensacola that is believed to be rich in natural-gas reserves.

Gov. Lawton Chiles has indicated that he wants to protect the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico, but Babbitt said the extent of the zone has not been decided.

Until now, it had been Congress, not the Interior Department, that limited drilling. Indeed, under the Reagan administration, Interior had supported offshore exploration. Congress stepped in to stop it.

For more than a decade, Congress had each year passed a moratorium on offshore drilling, a prohibition that has consistently enjoyed bipartisan support from Florida's congressional delegation.

But this week, a subcommittee stripped the moratorium language from a bill. That raised fears among environmentalists that drilling could be coming.

And although Babbitt complained that the GOP-controlled Congress is "out to dismantle environmental regulations," it is Rep. C. W. Bill Young, a Republican from Indian Rocks Beach, who seeks to restore the moratorium.

Young, one of the more senior members of the Appropriations panel, hopes to put back the language when the committee resumes work on Tuesday.

Is the congressional action even necessary with the five-year Interior plan?

Babbitt says yes. Without clear congressional support of the ban on new leases, he says, even his plan could be vulnerable.

"It is important to retain the moratorium until such time as we have a permanent legislative policy," Babbitt said.

Reps. Porter Goss, a Sanibel Republican, and Peter Deutsch, a Lauderhill Democrat, both have introduced bills that would make permanent the ban on new leases off Florida.

Babbitt will be in Florida next week. He plans to visit Pensacola, where he expects to discuss oil- and gas-leasing issues. He also will stop in the Tampa Bay area to discuss water management.

Tom Powers, program director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, is pleased about the five-year plan but disturbed by congressional action on the moratorium.

Without the annual moratorium, Powers said, there would be a one-year gap between the end of the current limits and the beginning of the five-year plan. He worries what could happen during that time.

Oil and gas leasing off Florida's west coast has been curtailed by congressional moratorium since 1984. The Florida Keys have been off limits since 1988. President George Bush declared a moratorium on drilling off Florida's east coast in 1990. And state law prohibits drilling in the waters less than 3 miles from shore.

But several lawsuits filed by leaseholders off the Keys and the Atlantic coast are pending.

Representatives of the natural gas industry maintain that it is an environmentally sensitive alternative to fuel oil. They argue that concerns about burgeoning development in the Panhandle because of the gas industry are unfounded, since natural gas collected off the Panhandle would be transported to existing plants in Mobile, Ala., for processing.