After receiving assurances from Senate leaders that his state’s coastline would be protected, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida agreed Thursday to support a measure to permit offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
With his agreement, the Senate is expected to pass a proposal next week that would allow the harvesting of oil and natural gas in 8.3 million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Once approved, the measure would advance to negotiations with the U.S. House, which approved a much broader drilling plan in June.
Nelson’s decision to support the Senate plan comes after weeks of roundabout negotiations with Senate leaders in both parties. His concern was that the Senate’s plan, if passed, would be watered down during negotiations with the House — potentially bringing oil rigs within 50 miles of Florida.
But before addressing the issue on the Senate floor Thursday morning, Nelson said both Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed to take a hard-line stance with the House.
Reid wrote Nelson a letter promising that he would support a filibuster “if the House does not accept the Senate bill as passed.” And Frist sent Nelson an e-mail vowing he would “not bring a bill back before the Senate that does not provide adequate protections to the State of Florida.”
With those assurances, it is now unlikely Nelson would use parliamentary tactics to stall or stop the Senate bill. “Around here, you have to take a man at this word,” said Nelson, a Democrat.
Nelson’s Florida counterpart, Sen. Mel Martinez, has made similar vows to kill legislation that would not protect the state. Martinez, a Republican, helped negotiate the Senate plan.
But House leaders were equally adamant in support of their idea — which could mean a drawn-out and, perhaps, unsuccessful negotiation between the two chambers. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee, has criticized suggestions to bypass negotiations.
Another House backer, Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Pa., also dismissed the no-compromise attitude. “We need to do more than that,” he said of the Senate plan. The House measure, he said, provides similar protections for Florida.
“What if nothing happens?” he asked, noting that high natural-gas rates hurt business and lead to the loss of “blue-collar, working-class jobs.”
The plan passed by the House would end a quarter-century of offshore protections and substitute a 50-mile buffer from drilling along every coastline in the country. States would then have the option of extending this barrier to 100 miles or reducing it to a few miles.
The Senate plan is much narrower and would limit drilling to 8.3 million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, in an area southwest of the Florida Panhandle. Senate energy officials estimate there are about 1.26 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas there.
Although the effect on the country’s massive consumption of oil would be limited, the stores of natural gas could heat and cool nearly 6 million homes for 15 years, according to Senate figures.
Both the House and Senate plans make provisions to share revenues from the rigs between states and the federal government. This stipulation has helped earn the support of lawmakers from the Gulf Coast states.
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