Domenici Bill Kicks Off Battle Over Lease Sale 181

Lease Sale 181 - GOM
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A quartet of senators yesterday introduced legislation to open a portion of the Gulf of Mexico's Lease Sale 181 area to oil and natural gas drilling, likely kicking off a spirited fight with the Florida delegation.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), ranking member Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) formally unveiled their bill that would require the Interior Department to begin offering leases in the "bulge" portion of the Lease Sale 181 area off the Florida coast within one year.

The region up for lease under the bill contains an estimated 4.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which drilling advocates say is necessary to address high natural gas costs. But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) has already threatened to filibuster the proposal.

"I think you'll see the Florida delegation very much in opposition to this major opening of Florida's coast to offshore drilling," said Mark Ferrulo, director of Florida PIRG. "The same reasons that this area was protected in 2001 are the same reasons it should still be protected today."

The bill would exclude portions of the Lease Sale 181 area within 100 miles off the Florida coastline and also would require permission of the Defense Department to allow drilling in the portion of the area east of the "military mission line," a line of longitude east of which the military has said is important to Gulf Coast training needs (E&E Daily, Feb. 6).

"Opening this area is our best opportunity to bring a lot of gas to market swiftly and make a real difference with supply and price," Domenici said in a statement yesterday. "This bill will not interfere with the viewscapes from the coast, the environment or the military activity in the area."

Nelson and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) last week introduced a bill of their own (S. 2239) that would permanently ban drilling in the eastern gulf, including most of the 181 region. But the measure would not prevent development on roughly 700,000 acres in the area's southwest portion.

S. 2239 would establish permanent protections for Florida ranging from 150 miles out to more than 260 miles from its coast. It also seeks to extend the executive branch leasing withdrawals from 2012 to 2020 in other coastal areas (E&ENews PM, Feb. 1).

"I appreciate that there are environmental sensitivities associated with offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico," Bingaman said. "I am confident that development in this area can be done in an environmentally sound manner, and that lessees will be held to the highest environmental and safety standards."

On the House side, a spokeswoman for Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) expressed interest in a bill to address oil and gas production on outer continental shelf (OCS) areas nationwide, not just in Florida.

"We certainly applaud any effort to increase domestic energy production," said Jennifer Zuccarelli. "At the same time, we prefer a more comprehensive plan that addresses the entire OCS that grants much deserved revenue sharing and that would do more to offer states control.

"We don't want to do this piecemeal," Zuccarelli added. "We don't want to have 50 different votes on 50 different areas of the OCS."

On a separate track, the Minerals Management Service is planning to unveil its proposed OCS five year plan for 2007 through 2012. The Bush administration has not said whether it would include leasing in the 181 area but has vowed not to allow leasing within 100 miles of Florida's shores.

Interior deputy director Lynn Scarlett told reporters Monday to expect an announcement "very, very soon."

Ferrulo said yesterday's proposal is designed to force Interior's hand before the final five year plan is complete. "One of the clear intentions of this bill is that it doesn't want to wait until the next five year plan," he said. "They want to do the oil industry's bidding as soon as possible."

Reprinted from E&E Daily with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202/628-6500.

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