FLASHBACK: Florida Republicans Want Gas, But Not Drilling

Florida would have its cake and eat it, too.

More precisely, all but one member of Florida’s congressional delegation voted June 21 to prevent new oil and gas drilling in an area of the Gulf of Mexico that lies, for the most part, more than 100 miles off Florida’s beaches. But at the same time these same members of Congress want Floridians to be able to consume inexpensive oil and gas pumped out of the Gulf off the shores of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

In response, some House members from other Gulf states have called the Florida members to task for their incoherent, hypocritical energy policy.

“Is it moral for Florida to say, ‘We won’t drill for our own needs, but we’ll gladly take it from Louisiana and let you take the risk’?” asked Rep. Billy Tauzin (R.-La.). “Pretty immoral, as far as I’m concerned.”

Tauzin, whose district lies closer to the area where drilling would be prohibited than does most of Florida, added: “This country has its priorities all screwed up when it’s willing to send its children into battle to defend somebody else’s oil and gas fields when they won’t drill at home.”

Sonny Callahan, a Republican congressman from Mobile, Ala., accused the Florida lawmakers of “grandstanding” and “the height of hypocrisy” for blocking drilling while simultaneously scrambling to preserve federal funding for the permit process for a pipeline that will carry natural gas from the Central Gulf-where the states allow drilling-to the Sunshine State.

The controversy involves an area in the Gulf of Mexico known as Lease Sale 181 and a gas pipeline that will run from Alabama to Tampa Bay. After the anti-drilling vote, the major newspapers presented readers with an image of Florida Republicans breaking across party lines to defend their pristine shores by voting to block the Bush Administration from unleashing Big Oil to despoil a sensitive area of the Florida coast.

Sweet Home Alabama

But that is not the true story: The area in question is actually right off the coast of Alabama.

In retaliation for closing the drilling area, Rep. Callahan, whose district lies closest to Lease Sale 181, last Thursday used his clout as a top appropriator to block further funding for the permit process for the natural gas pipeline that originates in his district and feeds Tampa Bay. “If the Florida delegation doesn’t want gas drilling in the Gulf, they must think they don’t need gas,” said Jo Bonner, spokesman for Callahan. Callahan’s allies rallied a few House Republicans to switch their votes and succeeded in sinking a floor amendment to restore funding for permits for the pipeline.

Tauzin, whose state produces about one-fourth of the nation’s gas and oil, said the Floridians acted out of “political concerns, not environmental concerns.”

In 1989, George Bush the elder, under pressure from Florida officials, placed a moratorium on all new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico’s Eastern Planning Area-which includes all Gulf waters south of the Florida coast and a small strip running south from Alabama.

Late in his term, President Clinton agreed to allow drilling in one segment of the Eastern Planning Area. That part, known as Lease Sale 181, is over 100 miles from the Florida coast, except for one sliver, which extends north toward Mobile. The top of that sliver is 15 miles from the Alabama coast-as per the Democratic Alabama governor’s request-and 20 miles from Pensacola, Fla., and its sacred white sand beaches.

That sliver made Area 181 a Florida issue.

Rep. Joe Scarborough, the conservative Republican who represents Pensacola and the westernmost extremity of the Florida panhandle, is usually a sound thinker. But on this issue, even though he is retiring from Congress, he teamed up with Rep. Jim Davis, a liberal Democrat from Tampa, to propose an amendment to this year’s Interior Department appropriations bill that would continue to block exploration and drilling in Lease Sale 181.

The Scarborough-Davis amendment came to the floor June 21. Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Florida waxed eloquent in debate about protecting the wildlife and beauty of Florida’s coast.

“Do my colleagues want to ruin our beaches?” asked Democratic Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami. “My colleagues want to turn us into another Planet of the Apes. We do not want it, the toxic pollution, offshore oil drillings, air pollution, spills. These things will happen. Why would we want to put our natural system at risk? We have Everglades here. We have the beauty that God has given us. Let us keep it.”

Conservative freshman Republican Ric Keller, who represents inland Orlando, said: “I represented the world’s No. 1 vacation destination. I get to meet thousands of tourists every year. I have never yet heard a child say to me, ‘I want to see Mickey Mouse, Shamu, and wouldn’t it be great to see a couple oil rigs off the beaches?’ ”

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) rained on their bipartisan parade with a simple observation: “This lease is not off the coast of Florida, it is in the Gulf of Mexico. It is off the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.” Shamu lives 250 miles from Area 181, and the Snowy Egrets of the Everglades would need to fly over 300 miles to hit their first oil rig.

Even though Alabama would be more affected by drilling in the area than Florida, the Alabama delegation did not get a chance to speak its mind on the issue two weeks ago. When Davis and Scarborough were introducing their amendment to block drilling off Alabama’s coast, six of Alabama’s seven congressmen were aboard Air Force One with President Bush en route to a conservation rally in a forest near Birmingham.

Without Republican support, the Scarborough-Davis amendment would have been defeated. Because of Republican support it passed 247 to 164. Twenty-two of Florida’s 23 congressmen, including 14 of 15 Republicans, voted for it. Only Rep. John Mica (R.) dissented.

Mica proposed a compromise to his Florida colleagues: Prohibit oil drilling in the sliver reaching up toward the Alabama coast-the only part of the area that comes within 100 miles of Florida-but allow gas drilling in the entire area. That idea never took off on the 21st, but still may form the basis for some kind of compromise when an energy authorization bill is debated later this month.

The liberal media praised the vote as a major blow to Bush’s energy policy, and a victory for the environmental lobby. But the lawmaker whose district lies closest to the area-Alabama Rep. Sonny Callahan (R.)-decided to reap a little victory of his own.

Callahan chairs the Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee. On June 25, he moved a piece of legislation from his subcommittee through the full appropriations committee which happens to be chaired by Rep. Bill Young-one of the Florida Republicans who voted to block the new drilling.

Young didn’t know that the bill in question contained a rider that would kill funding for the pipeline’s permitting process. Young, like Davis, hails from the Tampa area, the terminus of the pipeline.

Last Thursday when that bill came up for a vote on the House floor, Davis offered an amendment to strip Callahan’s language. But it failed 210 to 213.

The construction of the pipeline itself is not federally funded, and so federal dollars are needed only for drawing up or amending its federal permits. Young’s office maintains that all the permits are already drawn up, and so Callahan’s amendment is merely symbolic. But now, because of the Callahan victory, if FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) for some reason had to revise the permits, the pipeline deal would be aborted, leaving Florida short on gas for generating electricity.

Currently, about 60% of the oil Americans use comes from overseas, 40% from OPEC countries. Tauzin, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a member of the Resources Committee, warned, “We’re going to make the same mistake in natural gas we made with oil. We’re going to gradually increase our dependence upon other countries.”