The plan is a compromise, responding to pressure from environmentalists and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush’s brother, to scale back a 1997 Clinton administration proposal to open 6 million acres for drilling.
“This compromise allows the economic development that Louisiana would like to see,” Sec. Norton told reporters at a news conference yesterday. “It allows the energy development that is necessary for the entire country and it responds to the concerns of the state of Florida.”
Gov. Bush sought to limit the lease area to protect Florida’s Gulf coast beaches from accidents and oil spills. The beaches are integral to the state’s tourism industry and Gov. Bush said the president’s plan “reflects significant progress in Florida’s fight to protect our coastline.”
The current plan would allow offshore drilling leases in three-fourth’s of an area known as Lease Sale 181. The area is at least 100 miles from the shorelines of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
President Bush has supported drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere to find new domestic sources of energy.
While President Bush’s plan met with approval from some environmentalists, others said the exploration still poses a threat to the region.
“More rigs mean more pipelines and tankers, and thus a higher risk to Florida and Alabama’s coastal economies and fisheries,” Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club’s Florida office said.
Other critics see the opening of the eastern Gulf as a first step towards expanding oil and natural gas exploration in other off-limits areas in the future. Sec. Norton said the 4.5 million acres of Sale 181 cut out of the current plan could be reconsidered in six years.
Though the proposal appears to scale back President Bush’s call to boost domestic energy sources, administration officials say the proposed area includes Sale 181’s highest potential oil and gas sites.
The Interior Department estimates the 1.5 million acres contains 1.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which could heat one million U.S. families’ homes for 15 years. It may also hold 185 million barrels of oil — about six years’ worth for a million families’ cars.
A final decision on the plan comes in October. An auction for the leases would follow in December and is expected to raise $136 million. Among the companies interested in drilling in the eastern Gulf are Chevron, BP, Exxon Mobil, ARCO and Shell Oil.
Offshore drilling is prevalent in the western and central Gulf of Mexico, but the last federal leases in the eastern Gulf were offered in 1988.