U.S. Government to Buy Back Destin Dome Leases

President Bush has committed to pay $235 million to buy back oil, natural gas and mining development rights near Florida's Everglades and beaches, an environmental deal that his up-for-re-election brother acknowledged as a political boon. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, seeking a second term in November, escorted to the White House members of the Collier family who are to receive $120 million for their oil and gas drilling rights if Congress approves the agreement. The second half of the deal, a $115-million settlement buying out nine oil and gas leases to preclude drilling in Gulf of Mexico areas closest to Pensacola, does not require legislation and will proceed without Congress, Interior Secretary Gail Norton said.

"Florida is known worldwide for its beautiful coastal waters and the Everglades. Today we are acting to preserve both," the president said in a written statement.

Asked outside the White House if his re-election campaign stands to benefit politically in a state where polls show 75 percent of Floridians opposed to offshore drilling, the president's younger brother replied: "I hope so. But more importantly, it is good public policy and when there's a convergence of good politics and good public policy, I don't think we should be ashamed about it."

The Florida economy relies heavily on tourists who, in turn, count on Florida for clean beaches and "the pristine natural environment," the governor continued, using a description frequently applied to the Alaskan wilderness during the ANWR debate. Jeb Bush said it's for others to determine "which side wins out" in Alaska. "I'm governor of Florida. You know, Alaska is a wonderful place but it's a little cold for me."

The proposed $120 million buy-out of the Collier family would nullify its substantial oil and gas rights in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve, which is adjacent to Everglades National Park.

The $115 million payment settles a lawsuit by several petroleum companies accusing the federal government of throwing up regulatory hurdles to their development of oil and gas leases in Destin Dome, the large natural gas field in the Gulf of Mexico offshore from Pensacola. By buying back the development leases in question, the Bush administration is precluding oil and gas production in the area. On two unexplored leases not covered by the Destin Dome buy-out, Jeb Bush said the state and federal government will essentially have "veto power" over future development.