A rigged deal
In rushing to sell drilling leases for 1.5-million acres in the eastern gulf, the White House blindsided a bipartisan effort to extend a moratorium in the area.
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 2001
President Bush's scaled-back proposal to expand drilling for oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico still carries enormous risk. While moving the new drilling area further away from Florida may provide political cover for the president and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the net effect is that more than a million acres offshore is closer to being opened for drilling, despite growing momentum across the political spectrum for efforts to prevent new exploration in that portion of the gulf.
Under the proposal announced Monday, the federal government would sell drilling leases on 1.5-million acres in the eastern gulf. That area is one-fourth the size of the 6-million acres earlier proposed. The tract, called Area 181, would begin 285 miles west of Pinellas County, 138 miles from Panama City and 100 miles from the Florida coast near Pensacola.
David Struhs, Florida's top environmental regulator, says new drilling presents "negligible risk, if any at all," for the state's beaches and marine habitat, but those familiar with his record in Florida may not consider Struhs the most reassuring source on the subject. The Bush administrations in Washington and Tallahassee also are touting this deal as a "compromise." Maybe it represents a compromise between the Bushes, but opponents of new drilling in the gulf were blindsided by the decision. The White House made the announcement on the first day of Congress' Independence Day recess. Dropping a bomb when members aren't in town is an old trick for catching opponents off-guard. Given the stakes involved -- especially to his brother's state -- President Bush should have made his announcement when opponents could stand on equal footing to respond to the deal. Congressional Democrats and some environmental groups were scrambling Monday to find maps of the new drilling area and discover how the alternative proposal came about.
Before this "compromise," two recent votes in the House of Representatives laid the groundwork for solid opposition to new drilling. The House had approved a six-month ban on new leases in the eastern gulf, and a companion measure was being drafted in the Senate. The next step was to make the temporary bans permanent. Only the White House and the oil and gas industries stood to gain by pre-empting the course of this political debate by reaching an agreement with Florida. Struhs acknowledged the move in Congress toward an outright ban, but said: "That's something we didn't want to count on."
Jeb Bush, speaking as part of a Republican-only teleconference Monday, praised the proposal as a "win" for Florida, and he and other state Republicans went out of their way to blame previous Democratic administrations for putting the state in this position. It's true that former President Clinton and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles allowed the drawing of new leases in the gulf to go forward, but the fact remains: It is the Bush brothers who acted to bring drilling in the eastern gulf closer to reality.
Florida had succeeded until now in blocking offshore drilling because Democrats and Republicans saw the benefit of making our state's environment a bipartisan concern. By letting his brother off the hook, the governor has reduced the state's leverage and placed an unnecessary wedge in our congressional delegation. As a practical matter, the effort in the Senate to ban gulf drilling is made more difficult, if not moot. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was also right to warn that the leases were "the camel's nose under the tent" that could spur broader drilling in the gulf.
The issue is not whether the extent of new drilling could have been worse. Nor should Floridians be diverted by Bush officials' boasts that oil rigs won't be visible from Florida's beaches; no one can guarantee that any future oil slicks won't be visible.
Instead, the issue should be whether, given the many alternatives, the eastern gulf is an appropriate place for any new energy exploration. The president should have waited and listened to the emerging bipartisan consensus in Congress against new drilling in the gulf. The governor should have avoided intervening in a way that appears to give more consideration to the White House's interests than to Florida's. Because that didn't happen, the state's legitimate interest in opposing drilling in the eastern gulf has been weakened.