The Senate gave its approval early Saturday to a bill that would allow oil and gas exploration in 8.3-million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, just 125 miles south of the Florida Panhandle.
The 79-9 vote - one of the final actions of Congress before it adjourned for the year - followed approval Friday by the House and sends the measure to President Bush, who is expected to sign it.
Although the bill marks the first time Congress has voted to allow drilling off Florida's shores since federal bans on drilling were put in place more than 20 years ago, it also provides long-term protection for Florida's west coast: No drilling will be allowed within 234 miles of Tampa Bay through 2022.
Industry groups praised the bill, saying access to natural gas in the eastern gulf will help stabilize energy prices. Environmental groups had opposed it, on grounds that allowing drilling anywhere near Florida's coasts could endanger the state's coastal and marine environments.
But with high energy prices putting more and more pressure on Congress to open the nation's outer continental shelf to rigs, the measure was far less friendly to drilling than others that almost passed Congress this year. The bill was a compromise between drilling opponents and advocates, and was negotiated largely with the help of Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez.
"Now is the time and this is the opportunity to protect the state of Florida,'' said Martinez, who joined Nelson in voting for the bill Saturday.
The bill also will send billions more dollars in federal drilling fees to states that allow it off their shores, particularly Louisiana. Florida won't get any fees for drilling that occurs 125 miles off the Panhandle.
That irritated many Florida House members, but the senators say the west coast protections were worth the tradeoff.
The drilling provision was part of a sweeping tax and trade package that, among other things, normalized trade relations with Vietnam and renewed a two-year tax benefit that's especially important for Floridians: Residents of states without income taxes may again deduct a portion of their state sales tax from their federal tax returns.
"This is a huge day for Floridians," Nelson said. "Not only were we able to get needed protections from drilling, we also got a major tax break."
Wes Allison can be reached at (202) 463-0577 or email@example.com.