Gulf Coast Senators Looking to Slip Revenue Sharing into 181 Bill

Gulf Coast senators are trying to piece together a coalition that supports drilling in the Gulf of Mexico's Lease Sale 181 area as well as offshore revenue sharing with coastal states, even without the backing of the 181 plan's lead Democratic sponsor, sources close to the issue said yesterday.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said senators from four Gulf Coast states -- Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas -- have crafted a joint proposal on how coastal states should receive a share of outer continental shelf production revenues. The group hopes to graft the OCS revenue sharing system onto legislation sponsored by Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and ranking member Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would require oil and gas leasing in a substantial portion of the eastern gulf's Lease Sale 181 area.

Vitter said if the senators can get a deal with Florida's lawmakers on a no-drilling boundary for that state, they hope to effectively bypass Bingaman, gain Domenici's backing and get to the 60 votes for a filibuster-proof majority for the measure that includes revenue sharing. Bingaman opposes revenue sharing.

Vitter said progress will depend on a two-step process. The first "threshold question" is how to win support of Florida's senators, who oppose coastal drilling and want guaranteed protections for their state. Talks have reportedly explored a buffer extending into the 125 mile range and lasting over a decade, although these discussions appear fluid.

From there, he said lawmakers would hope to show that with Florida agreement and revenue sharing, backers have enough support to overcome Bingaman's objections. "I don't think there is any possible hope for movement with Bingaman," Vitter said.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) yesterday said a 125 mile no-drill buffer with protection extending to 2017 or 2020 has been discussed, but he added, "I am not suggesting there is a deal."

Sources familiar with the negotiations confirm that Gulf Coast lawmakers are mulling ways to gain Florida and Domenici's backing on a legislative deal without Bingaman's support, effectively splitting the New Mexico lawmakers on the 181 measure. But the plan may face an uphill battle given the Domenici-Bingaman relationship. They worked together closely on last year's successful energy bill and offered the 181 plan jointly. It is far from certain that Domenici would be willing to part ways with his cosponsor on the 181 plan.

Domenici's staff could not be reached for comment as to whether Domenici would back a Lease sale 181 measure that did not carry Bingaman's support. One source said gulf lawmakers have not given up on finding a deal that Bingaman could support but noted it did not appear likely.

Gulf Coast officials are increasingly pressing for a share of royalties from offshore production. Vitter and the other Gulf Coast lawmakers -- minus the Florida delegation -- late last month sent a letter to Senate leaders stating they are "firmly united" behind revenue sharing (Greenwire, May 30).

Also, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) has threatened to try and block a federal western Gulf of Mexico lease sale scheduled for August unless Louisiana gets a major share of offshore revenues.

Copyright 2006 E&E Daily. All Rights Reserved. Visit E&E Publishing for a free trial.

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