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Oil drilling promises undercut by actions

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt toured Florida this week to highlight his stewardship of the state's environment, but only days earlier another arm of the Clinton administration quietly approved a request to drill for oil and gas off the Panhandle.

Commerce Secretary Ron Brown okayed Mobil oil's request to drill an exploratory well 13.5 miles off Pensacola, overturning objections by the state of Florida that the company's plan contradicts efforts to protect the coast and its marine life.

The Commerce Department's June 20 decision affects a lease that Mobil has held since the Reagan administration. But the ruling was distributed on Tuesday _ in the middle of Babbitt's three-day Florida visit and a week after President Clinton himself vowed to block offshore drilling along sensitive coasts.

Commerce Department spokesman Jim Desler said Brown was guided by "strict scientific criteria" and the advice of his department's oceanic experts. But Florida's leading Republican quickly picked up on the mixed message coming out of the Democratic administration.

"It's not unusual for the administration to say one thing and do another. Perhaps it would be a good idea for Secretary Babbitt to share his thoughts with Secretary Brown," said U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla.

Members of Gov. Lawton Chiles' staff thought the timing of the Brown ruling was odd, and they added that Chiles would continue to object to the Mobil drilling plan. "Florida speaks with a unified voice on this subject," said Ron Sachs, spokesman for the governor.

Mobil spokeswoman Gail Campbell Woolley said attorneys for the huge oil company are studying the decision and do not expect to drill any time soon.

While the Commerce Department's approval is important, there are probably still a few more steps Mobil must take before it could begin drilling, state officials said. It needs a Clean Air Act permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. And it needs final approval from an agency in Babbitt's Interior Department.

This lease falls outside the scope of the offshore drilling ban that was imposed by Congress several years ago. A fight over Congress' ban _ affecting new leases, not old ones like that held by Mobil _ has renewed concern among Florida's lawmakers and the administration over the perennial dispute.

Pro-oil lawmakers briefly had the upper hand in the tussle, persuading a House subcommittee to lift the ban on June 20. The full House Appropriations Committee voted to reinstate a ban on new leases this week, however.

The day of the subcommittee vote, Clinton said he would not let the ban be lifted and went on to issue this far-reaching pledge: "I will not allow oil and gas drilling off our nation's most sensitive coast lines on my watch."

Yet on that same day, June 20, Commerce Secretary Brown issued the decision that brings Mobil's drilling plans off Florida closer to reality.

Brown ruled that Mobil's exploration plan might yield gas that would make the United States less dependent on foreign products. "Self-sufficiency," as its known, is a plank in the law that governs his authority over oil and gas leases.

The Commerce decision says that the "national interest benefits" of Mobil's gas exploration "will outweigh the proposed activity's adverse effects on the state's coastal resources and uses."

The state of Florida objected to the Mobil drilling plan in April 1992, saying that it feared an oil spill that would damage the Panhandle coast and that the drilling would violate its coastal management program. Mobil exercised its right to appeal to the Commerce Department, which ruled this month.

Officials in the Commerce and Interior departments said the release of the ruling during the Babbitt visit was a coincidence of timing, and that Brown had little choice but to approve the Mobile plan.