Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Drilling for Dollars

Proponents like Jeff Miller claim the House bill is the only way to protect Florida beaches, given the politics in Washington. That's like Jack the Ripper blaming unsafe streets for all the serial killings going on.
A few weeks ago the House of Representatives -- with help from Northwest Florida's own Judas, congressman Jeff Miller (R-Chumuckla) -- passed H.R. 4761. Everything about this bill is deeply deceptive, right down to its very name.

The so-called "Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act" passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would do nothing about the hundreds of 'deep ocean' drilling leases already in the hands of corporate oil giants, over 4,000 of which the companies continue to keep safely in the vault rather than work for gas and oil. Under the "Deep Ocean" bill, however, drilling would be permitted off all of Florida's coasts at an unprecedentedly shallow, near-shore depth. Rigs would be set up as close as 50 miles from Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach.

Proponents like Jeff Miller claim the House bill is the only way to protect Florida beaches, given the politics in Washington. That's like Jack the Ripper blaming unsafe streets for all the serial killings going on.

In fact, the House bill makes it a virtual certainty that oil slicks and tar balls, or worse, sooner or later will be washing up somewhere along Florida's 1,197 statute miles of coastline. Whenever that happens, the state's environmental health and tourist economy will be devastated. Florida's reputation for clean white beaches will be transformed instantly into a modern-day synonym for the Exxon-Valdez.

In addition, the bill's fine print appears to empower a single federal bureaucrat to nudge rigs even closer any time he sees fit to do so in the name of Homeland Security, patriotism, hot dogs, or whatever the future buzzword may be that's sure to frighten citizens into turning off their brains.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed S. 3711, whose ungainly title ("A Bill to Enhance the Energy Independence and Security of the United States by Providing for Exploration, Development, and Production Activities for Mineral Resources in the Gulf of Mexico, and For Other Purposes") is only slightly less misleading than the House version.

This bill, co-sponsored by Florida's two U.S. senators Mel Martinez (R-Orlando) and Bill Nelson (D-Tallahassee), offers appreciably more protection for Northwest Florida's beaches and the environment as a whole. Not substantial, just appreciable.

The Senate bill rejects the House's cynical and dangerous idea of leaving long-term beach protection up to affirmative action by the Florida state legislature every five years. And, as shown in the map, above, it confines rigs to the more distant southern end of Lease Area 181, at least through the year 2022:

(a) In General- Effective during the period beginning on the date of enactment of this Act and ending on June 30, 2022, the Secretary shall not offer for leasing, preleasing, or any related activity--

(1) any area east of the Military Mission Line in the Gulf of Mexico;
(2) any area in the Eastern Planning Area that is within 125 miles of the coastline of the State of Florida; or
(3) any area in the Central Planning Area that is--

(A) within--
(i) the 181 Area; and
(ii) 100 miles of the coastline of the State of Florida; or

(B) (i) outside the 181 Area;
(ii) east of the western edge of the Pensacola Official Protraction Diagram (UTM X coordinate 1,393,920 (NAD 27 feet)); and
(iii) within 100 miles of the coastline of the State of Florida.
The vote was 71 to 25, with 4 abstentions.

Both the House and the Senate bills are pretty bad. Both essentially commit the federal treasury to paying an estimated 37% to 50% of all revenues to a handful of states -- some of which in the House bill do not even border on the Gulf of Mexico and none of which has a justifiable call on revenues that should be going directly to the federal treasury for the extraction of a non-renewable federal resource. As the Associated Press reported:
Senate leaders originally hoped to move the bill without conceding new money to the states. In fact, the revenue shift is so large that it attracted attention from President Bush, who opposes the provision over the hole it could leave in future federal budgets.

But Gulf senators who have long sought a larger share of the proceeds from production in federal waters off their shores banded together and threatened to block the bill if the revenues weren't included.

The House and Senate bills put at risk a national resource that happens to be here in Northwest Florida while other states, like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, collect well over a third of the revenues. When an oil spill fouls Pensacola Beach, don't hold your breath waiting for Texas to come to our rescue.

The revenue-sharing scheme both bills create is nothing more than a thinly-disguised bribe invented for greedy, myopic congressmen to win their votes. Neither bill will cure our nation's oil addiction or, for that matter, cut the street price of gasoline. The proposed bills do nothing to wean us from our oil addiction, for example by encouraging conservation or alternative energy sources which almost everyone now realizes is the only realistic hope for the future.

Neither bill offers anything meaningful for domestic energy security, either. According to industry calculations unearthed by the Sierra Club, at the most Area 181 drilling is likely to produce a total of only 47 days worth of gasoline and 4 months of natural gas. In toto.

It's also worrisome that some politicians already see the Senate bill as precedent-setting:
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, predicted that it would be the first step toward lifting the moratorium on coastal drilling in other parts of the country.

"This is the beginning," Domenici said. "The precedent is going to be broken here … [and] then we can move step by step to other areas of American-owned property off other shores, with no damage, and produce our own natural gas and some of our own crude oil."
That's a triumphalist attitude that rattled Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) within minutes of the Senate vote.
Sen. Domenici should declare victory and keep quiet," Reid said with exasperation. "With the help of the Democrats, his offshore drilling bill passed…. The Democratic caucus is very clear that there will be no more offshore drilling."
Still, with all its faults the bi-partisan Senate bill backed by Martinez and Nelson clearly is the better of two bad bills. Jeff Miller's House bill is an outright abomination, as local resident Enid Sisskin's testimony before Congress a few weeks ago persuasively shows. The environmental and economic risks inherent in the House bill for all of Northwest Florida and its tourist industry simply are not worth the puny pay-off.

Neither bill is yet law. The House adjourned last week for the rest of the summer. The Senate goes home at the end of this week. When they return, a conference committee will have to iron out the differences betweent the two bills. Whatever emerges from that conference committee likely will become law.

While the politicians are back home this month, it might be a good opportunity to let Jeff Miller know how you feel about lawmakers who shamelessly toady to the oil and gas lobby and busy themselves bribing each other with money from the federal treasury.

You also could give Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson a high-five -- or maybe a luke-warm five, if there is such a thing -- for trying to stick up for the best interests of Florida and the nation as a whole. They've both been working hard to protect a unique national heritage -- Northwest Florida's Gulf shore beaches -- and they are still worried enough about the upcoming conference report that they're threatening to "filibuster any compromise" according to the Palm Beach Post.

The Senate bill they helped to craft isn't perfect -- far, far from it -- but given the current Robber Baron Congress it looks like it's about the best we can expect.

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