WASHINGTON — For the first time in 22 years, the U.S. House Appropriations committee Wednesday decided to do without a longstanding moratorium protecting Florida’s shores from natural gas drilling.
In a 37-25 vote on the Interior Appropriations bill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted for an amendment introduced by Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., that would allow drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, bringing natural gas drilling as close as three miles off the state’s Atlantic Coast and nine miles off the Gulf Coast.
The Interior bill now moves to the full House of Representatives, where it likely will be debated next Thursday.
The vote has no bearing on the longstanding moratorium on oil drilling. It only would affect natural gas supplies, which are predominantly used by agriculture and heavy industry such as steel.
Peterson called the vote “an important first step” toward fixing the nation’s energy woes.
“The burden has now shifted onto those who oppose the safe production of natural gas to explain to the American people why this country should continue to lock up vast reserves of energy while homegrown industries and the American consumer class continue to pay the highest prices in the world,” said Peterson, who long has maintained drilling would protect agricultural and industrial jobs that heavily rely on natural gas production.
The Florida Public Interest Research Group, which opposes lifting the moratorium, called the vote “the most far-reaching and damaging attack on Florida’s coastal protections against offshore drilling that we have ever seen.”
“For decades, Congress has granted nearly every wish that the oil and gas industry has asked for, nearly always at the expense of the environment and consumers,” said Mark Ferrulo, the director of Florida PIRG. “(Wednesday’s) vote is more of the same — false promises to consumers and more profits for the fossil fuel barons.
“Offshore oil and gas drilling is the slowest, dirtiest and most expensive way to produce energy,” Ferrulo added. “Opening our coasts to destructive drilling would do little to lower prices or make us energy independent, but it would threaten our beaches with pollution and potential oil spills and put at risk multibillion-dollar coastal tourism economies.”
Even if the bill passes the House and Senate, President George W. Bush would be required to lift the current presidential ban to allow the beginning of drilling along the Outer Continental Shelf.
But members of the Florida congressional delegation said they refuse to allow the legislation to advance that far.
After the vote, Reps. Mark Foley, R-Fort Pierce, and Jim Davis, D-Tampa, quickly began work on their own amendment to remove the Outer Continental Shelf provision from the bill.
Aides for the two lawmakers were expected to meet today to iron out the specifics and said they would offer their amendment by next week.
“We have to redouble our efforts to offset the threat against our shores and we can’t take it lightly,” Foley said. “The Peterson amendment is a threat to Florida’s economy and our beaches. Under the pressure of rising natural gas prices, Peterson sees Florida as a target. This is a dangerous political game that they are playing — placing gas rigs in the middle of hurricane alley.
“It’s going to take our whole delegation working together to rally support,” Foley added. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a particular interest in Florida.”
So far, most members of the state’s delegation have banded together to protect the shores against a drumbeat of drilling. In the yearlong battle, Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, appeared to be the only lawmaker in the delegation who supported gas drilling.
Southwest Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Miami Republican who represents a portion of Collier County, and Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers, have been staunchly opposed to opening up the shores to drilling.
“I warned about this early on last year and is why I have stressed our need for a permanent, state-controlled ban on drilling around the entire state,” Diaz-Balart said following Wednesday’s vote. “With energy costs as they are, the rumbling from last year has now become a constant roar.”
Diaz-Balart said he is “hopeful” the issue can be resolved.
Jeff Cohen, Mack’s chief of staff, said the congressman also was disappointed in the committee vote.
“Floridians should be in control of Florida’s destiny,” Cohen said. “We’d hope Mr. Peterson would put as much energy into developing new energy technologies as he has into drilling three miles off Florida’s coast.”