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The coast is clear

A turquoise and gold sunset on Florida's Gulf Coast is alluring for what isn't visible as much as for what is. There are no oil rig skeletons marring the horizon and no petroleum wastes rolling up on the beach. If the drill-at-any-cost interests in Washington have their way, however, those days could be numbered.

To the west, off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, extensive offshore exploration has taken its toll on the environment. Until recently, the eastern Gulf _ which is closest to Florida's beaches and estuaries _ has been mostly off limits. There is a growing danger that such restraint could be ending.

While the Department of Interior has accepted bids for leases on a number of deep water sites in a section of the eastern gulf, it also has put an area that stretches northward toward the Florida Panhandle off limits _ at least for now. Recently, three senators on the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee indicated they might be ready to lift that moratorium.

". . . We are writing to request that the Department of Interior solicit comments from all interested parties on the appropriateness of leasing in both moratoria and non-moratoria areas," the senators wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. In other words, it's time to open up the eastern Gulf to drilling, said Sens. Pete Domenici (the committee chairman), R-N.M.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

While the request may seem like a harmless first step in the quest for domestic sources of oil and gas, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson's office put the matter in perspective. "If people get comfortable with lifting the ban on restricted areas, coastal Florida could end up looking like the waters off Louisiana," said Bridget Walsh, Nelson's deputy legislative director.

Nelson and Sen. Bob Graham prevailed last year in getting their colleagues to protect those areas in the Senate's energy bill. Unfortunately, that provision was removed in a conference with House leaders, although agreement was never reached on a final version of the bill. Since then, Republicans have strengthened their control of both chambers. They tend to be friendlier to the petroleum industry, although Landrieu's home-cooked interest in expanded drilling shows Democrats can be tempted as well.

It is far from certain how this matter will be resolved. Gov. Jeb Bush supported the moratorium on drilling off the Florida coast, at least while he and his brother were seeking re-election. We encourage him to continue using his influence in Washington to protect Florida's tourism and fishing industries, not to mention our quality of life.

Undoubtedly, some in Congress will make the argument that Florida has to sacrifice to help ensure the nation's energy independence. But that will be a dishonest argument. First, there aren't enough oil reserves in the entire country to accomplish that goal, much less in the eastern gulf. Besides, the area may not prove to be productive, and ruining Florida's shores is too dear a price to find out.

"Florida just cannot tolerate drilling off our coast," Nelson said. "This is an issue around which Floridians can unify."

He's right. It is time for the state's residents to get over their political differences and speak with one voice about protecting our unique natural heritage.