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House okays gulf oil drilling

It took 18 months, a few close calls and lots of horse trading, not to mention an Election Day beating that sapped some verve from House Republicans.

But the U.S. Congress approved a measure early today that would open millions of acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, in exchange for long-term protections for Florida's west coast.

While the bill was opposed by environmental groups and some Democrats, it was far less pro-drilling than several other bills the House Republican leadership of had tried to pass over the past year.

For most of the Florida lawmakers who supported the bill, the vote represented more compromise than capitulation. As approved just before 2 a.m. by the Senate, the bill would open 8.3-million acres in the eastern gulf and allow exploration 125 miles south of the Panhandle.

It also would ban drilling within 234 miles of Tampa Bay through 2022.

"Doing nothing was not an option," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the fifth-ranking House Republican, who spent months trying to negotiate a Florida-friendly bill.

"It offers historical protection for Florida's Gulf Coast. No other Congress, no other administration has voted to extend the protections for the gulf as far as this legislation," he said.

The House vote was 367-45, with all but six of Florida's 25 members voting for it. The Senate passed the bill early today, with just hours to go before Congress was to adjourn for the year.

Florida's U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, had helped craft the bill, and both voted for it this morning.

Although the Senate unanimously had passed the same drilling bill this summer, the House on Friday rolled it into a broad package of tax breaks, trade provisions and other measures - including an extension of the law allowing residents of Florida and other states without an income tax to deduct a portion of their state sales tax on their federal returns.

That meant the Senate had to approve or reject the package as a whole. President Bush is expected to sign it into law.

Friday's passage in the House was hailed by business groups, who for the past year have lobbied Congress to open more U.S. waters to energy development in hopes of tempering the high natural gas prices affecting the chemical, fertilizer, paper and manufacturing industries.

Environmentalists, however, panned it, saying the barge traffic, underwater pipelines and drilling that will accompany energy exploration in the eastern gulf could threaten Florida's coastal environment.

"The U.S. House has voted to give an early Christmas present to Big Oil, and Florida gets a stocking stuffed with tar balls," said Mark Ferrulo, director of Environment Florida. "The giveaway ... is bad news for anyone who cares about the health of our marine wildlife and coastal environment."

The bill was still less aggressive than what the House had tried before. Last summer, the House fell just short of ending a 20-year-old federal ban on drilling as close as three miles from shore. Then it easily passed a bill that would have opened the entire U.S. coast to drilling beyond 100 miles, and closer if states permitted it.

Putnam and other Florida Republicans had worked to pass that bill, because it provided the same protections for the east coast as the west coast.

But that bill had no chance of passing the Senate.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, had no intention of passing the compromise bill that Nelson and Martinez helped pass in the Senate.

Then the Republicans were trounced in November's election. With environmentally minded Democrats set to take control of Congress next month, industry groups pressured the House to act, saying the Senate's modest bill was better than no bill at all.

Moderate House Republicans sent their leaders a letter saying the elections showed Americans are tired of extremism, and they urged the leadership to take up the Senate bill.

This week, the leadership relented.

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

Fast facts

How they voted

Seventeen Florida Republicans voted for the bill, as did two Democrats. In west-central Florida, the split was along party lines.

Yea: Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville; Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs; C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores; Adam Putnam, R-Bartow; Katherine Harris, R-Longboat Key.

Nay: Jim Davis, D-Tampa.

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