WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is proposing the first new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in more than a decade with plans to offer new oil and gas leases in an area covering 1.47 million acres, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced Monday.
The area is less than one-fourth as big as the area originally proposed by the Clinton administration and initially adopted by Bush. The scaleback followed protests by state governments, environmentalists and others.
Norton said the lease area along the Outer Continental Shelf -- at least 100 miles from the shorelines of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi -- has enough oil to run a million families' cars for six years and enough natural gas to heat the homes of a million families for 15 years.
"Clearly, development of resources in the OCS is an important part of our national energy strategy," she told reporters. "My decision today represents a very reasonable compromise."
A final decision on the sale will be made in October and, if approved, an auction for the leases would take place in December, Norton said.
Interior officials said they expect the auction to raise $136 million. Since 1982, the government has collected $110.4 billion from its oil leases. Drilling could begin in the next two to 10 years, officials said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush listened to the people of Florida and worked with governors of states adjoining the Gulf of Mexico to "come out with a plan that is environmentally sensitive and balanced."
The area, known as Lease Sale 181, originally covered 5.9 million acres when it was proposed by the Clinton administration in 1997 after consultations with then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Opposition from Florida's tourist industry and environmentalists delayed the sale. Bush revived the plan when he took office, but it met with immediate opposition from his brother, Jeb Bush, who succeeded Chiles as Florida's governor.
Speaking from his parents' summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Jeb Bush said the compromise "reflects significant progress in Florida's fight to protect our coastline."
"Any lease sales that do occur in the 181 area will occur off the coast of Alabama, not Florida," he said. "Floridians have spoken loud and clear, and their voices have been heard by President Bush."
Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society, said the proposed sale "sounds like a big improvement over what was put on the table in Lease Sale 181.
Some environmental groups were still upset."More rigs mean more pipelines and tankers, and thus a higher risk to Florida and Alabama's coastal economies and fisheries," said Frank Jackalone, the Sierra Club's Florida staff director.
The House, with Florida Reps. Jim Davis, a Democrat, and Joe Scarborough, a Republican, leading the effort, voted last week to block the sale as part of an appropriations bill for the Interior Department. The Senate has not acted on the legislation and it could be September before any ban could become law.
While the decision reduces the size of the leasing area, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., expressed worry that it also might foreshadow more drilling and exploration.
"Now is the time to begin serious consideration of a national energy policy that doesn't put sensitive coastlines or other environmental systems at risk in order to drain America first," he said.
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