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Oil and water

Whether it was a simple case of bureaucratic short-sightedness or a cynical ploy to suck up to a potential campaign contributor, the Clinton administration has once again sent mixed signals on a matter of fundamental public policy. This time, the policy is of crucial interest to Floridians.

After the president declared that he "will not allow oil and gas drilling off our nation's most sensitive coastlines on my watch," his own commerce secretary, Ron Brown, opened the door to do just that. He made a finding that will make it easier for Mobil to drill for oil and gas off the Florida Panhandle.

It was an astonishing decision, and the fact that he did it the same week the president sent Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to draw a line in the sand makes it even more so. He has not only blurred his own policy. He has handed a political sword to the Republicans.

U.S. Sen. Connie Mack wasted no time in using it to slash at Clinton. "It's not unusual for the administrator to say one thing and do another," Mack said. "Perhaps it would be a good idea for Secretary Babbitt to share his thoughts with Secretary Brown."

Or maybe the two of them should sit down with the president and find out what the administration's policy is. Babbitt said he won't approve any new off-shore oil drilling leases and won't approve permits for old ones. But how will he do that in light of Brown's decision?

"It's a pretty explicit rejection of Florida's interests," said Tom Powers, program director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, which has been battling off-shore drilling. "It's a serious policy issue. I don't know what the motivation is. I have my cynical moments."

The cynical explanation is that Brown was giving the president a way to appeal to the oil industry for campaign contributions while also covering his environmental flank. Commerce officials, however, say they had no choice.

Mobil had appealed a decision by Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles to reject the well based on the Coastal Zone Management Act. To agree with Mobil, Brown had to reject Chiles' contention that the well would not adversely affect the coast or violate the clean water act or clean air act. And he did.

Commerce officials say they had to interpret the federal law narrowly. If you do that, they say, Brown's decision was clear. Babbitt can still reject the permit, so there is still hope it will be blocked. But Brown's action has harmed his case and clearly undermined the president's position.