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GOP leads push to open gulf drilling

With just one week left before they relinquish control, Republican leaders of the U.S. House plan to vote Tuesday on a bill to open some of the waters off the Florida Panhandle to oil and gas exploration.

Despite bipartisan support, however, the route House leaders plan to take would require a two-thirds majority, making its passage far from assured.

The bill, which passed the Senate easily last summer, would allow drilling 125 miles from the Panhandle, in an area known as Lease-Sale Area 181. It would also ban drilling within the military's eastern gulf training zone, which extends 234 miles off Tampa Bay.

Proponents say the bill provides long-term protections where none exist, noting the Interior Department already plans to open part of Area 181 next year. Industry groups like it because it would open some gas-rich waters energy companies have been eyeing for years.

It is not as sweeping as a bill to open all U.S. waters past 100 miles to drilling the House passed last summer. But that bill had no hope of passing the Senate, and advocates say they'll take what they can get while they can.

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., a leading supporter of offshore drilling, grumbled that passing the Senate bill won't do nearly enough to increase domestic supplies of natural gas, but it would be a good first step.

Opponents say the bill's protections are inadequate, and they worry about the environmental effects of drilling. And, with the Democrats set to take control of Congress next month, there's no need to compromise now.

Democrats generally are less favorable to drilling. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., opposes it outright.

Many Florida Republicans favor the bill, as do Florida's two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez. But at least three Florida Democrats oppose it, including Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, who wrote a letter to colleagues this week urging them to oppose the bill.

House leaders plan to bring the bill up under a procedure that allows them total control of the content, with no amendments or other changes. That would require two-thirds of the House for passage, rather than a simple majority - a dicey prospect.

But if they don't do it this way, aides said, Democrat-led changes to the bill could kill it, because the Senate and House have no time left to reconcile even slightly differing versions.

Wes Allison can be reached at (202)463-0577 or allison@sptimes.com

Fast facts

What deal would do

- Provide a 125-mile drilling buffer off the Panhandle through 2022.

- Block drilling within eastern gulf's military training zone, which extends 234 miles off Tampa Bay. The ban is good through 2022.

- Open about 1.7-million acres of Lease-Sale Area 181 to drilling.

- Open a 6.3-million-acre swath south of 181, known as Area 181 South, to drilling.

- Give states that allow drilling 37.5 percent of federal royalties that energy companies pay for drilling rights.

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