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Effort to ban offshore drilling gets reprieve

(ran T, ET editions of A)

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers restored to an appropriations bill a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off Florida and other coastal states.

Led by Rep. C. W. Bill Young, a Republican from Indian Rocks Beach, the House Appropriations committee on Tuesday voted 33-20 to restore language protecting large sections of the Outer Continental Shelf, including the Florida Gulf Coast and much of the Pacific Coast. The Interior subcommittee had stripped the moratorium from the bill last week.

The reversal makes it likely that the full House will endorse a one-year drilling ban off the coasts of Florida, California, Alaska and several New England states. If the Senate goes along, the coasts are protected for another year beginning in October. After that, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has pledged to keep Florida coasts off-limits through 2002.

Young does not anticipate any challenge to the moratorium when the full House debates it, perhaps as early as this week. "I think we have a stronger block of environmental support in the full House than we did in the committee," Young said.

Restoring the moratorium was a coup for Young, a senior member of the Appropriations committee, who spent the past week lobbying for the change. His amendment restoring the ban was co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Frank Riggs of California and Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks of Washington and Sidney Yates of Illinois.

Though the amendment was widely supported by members from coastal states, it faced formidable opposition in the Appropriations committee. Committee Chairman Robert Livingston, who represents oil-producing Louisiana, and Rep. Ralph Regula, a Republican from Ohio and the chairman of the Interior subcommittee, both opposed the moratorium.

"This was quite a challenge, with the chairman of the full committee and the chairman of the subcommittee both on the other side," Young said.

The moratorium historically has enjoyed strong bipartisan support from the Florida delegation. Throughout the day, other Florida lawmakers stopped to congratulate Young for his efforts.

"We crunched 'em," Rep. Joe Scarborough told Young after the vote.

Scarborough, a first-term Republican from Pensacola, helped round up support for the moratorium from Appropriations freshmen. Scarborough is interested in the issue since the waters off his district are especially vulnerable. Chevron and other companies have begun exploring an area south of Pensacola known as the Destin Dome, which is believed to be rich in natural gas reserves.

In past Congresses, the moratorium faced its toughest hurdle in the Senate, since former Senate Appropriations Chairman J. Bennett Johnston, another Louisianan, vigorously opposed the offshore ban. But Sen. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon and the panel's new chairman, is on record in support of the moratorium.

Florida Sen. Connie Mack, a Republican and a member of the Senate Appropriations committee, already is drumming up support for the moratorium in the Senate.

HIGHER STAKES: Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday dramatically increased a bond required before Coastal Petroleum Co. can drill oil off Florida's Gulf Coast.

The governor and Cabinet raised an earlier $500-million bond to $1.9-billion after getting new damage estimates from state biologists.

Coastal attorney Bob Angerer called the number "bogus," based on incorrect and exaggerated information about the size of a potential spill. "The number you're using has no connection with reality," he said. "Clearly the number is just being used to inflate the bond."

State biologists estimated extensive damage to sandy beaches, oyster reefs, marshes and sea grasses based on a spill of 1-million barrels, or 42-million gallons of oil, off Franklin County near St. George Island.

A bond is the latest maneuver in a long fight over offshore oil drilling in Florida. Coastal holds offshore oil leases stretching from Apalachicola to Naples and recently got a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court that could speed up getting a permit to drill. The court said Florida's Department of Environmental Protection could not require a substantial bond from the company prior to drilling.

Nevertheless, the governor and Cabinet demanded a $500-million bond from Coastal last month, acting in its role as the board of trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, which oversees state land.

Cabinet members later wondered what would happen if a spill lasted more than 24 hours _ the basis of the original damage estimates. State biologists returned Tuesday with even more devastating scenarios based on spills traveling for 36 or 48 hours.

The $500-million bond already has been appealed.

_ Times staff writers Diane Rado and Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.