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Date of Issue: December 14, 2006

Congress passes drilling bill in lame-duck session

Islanders opposed to an expansion of drilling in the Gulf said they hope one of the last votes in Congress' lame-duck session doesn't lead to a disaster that kills birds and other wildlife.

"People think it should be OK because we won't see oil rigs from the shore," said Pat Riggs, of Anna Maria. "It's not about seeing oil rigs. It's about the disaster that occurs 235 miles west of here that changes everything we know."

The U.S. House, after fierce debate in the final hours of the 109th Session Dec. 8, passed legislation expanding drilling for natural gas and oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Senate followed with its 1:49 a.m. vote on Dec. 9. The Senate had already passed drilling legislation 71 to 25 in August and on Saturday swiftly voted to send the bill to the president. The 79 to 9 vote was the Senate's last roll call vote of the session.

The drilling legislation was folded into a tax bill containing extensions for college tuition deduction, a research-and-development credit and a deduction for teachers' out-of-pocket expenses.

The White House-endorsed drilling legislation would open about 8.3 million acres in the Gulf for drilling about 125 miles south of the Florida Panhandle and 234 miles west of Tampa Bay. The area - designated parts of Lease Sale 181 - is estimated to contain about 1.26 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Four states - Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas - would receive royalties estimated in the millions of dollars. Additional royalties would be used to build parks and preserve green spaces in all 50 states.

Endorsing the measure earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said, "There's a delicate balance between developing our nation's natural resources and respecting the wishes of its individual states; this bill meets both."

The House had been expected to take up the drilling bill on Dec. 5, but the vote was canceled without official explanation.

Environmentalists took the postponement as a sign the measure lacked the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

But supporters continued to work to bring up the bill before the 109th Congress concluded its work.

"We have precious little time left, but remain hopeful," U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the co-author of the Senate bill, said on Dec. 5. "I pledge to use every resource at my disposal to do everything possible to see that this vital legislation is passed before Congress goes home."

Another attempt to move the legislation took place late Dec. 7, but the House called it a night before reaching the vote.

On Dec. 8, in the last hours of the session, representatives took several votes related to the drilling legislation, including defeating an amendment intended to require some oil companies to renegotiate contracts for royalty payments.

As lawmakers readied to vote, they encountered campaigns from two fronts - environmental groups opposed to the legislation and industry groups promoting the measure as the best possible compromise.

"This backward looking legislation should never again see the light of day," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, of the League of Conservation Voters.

Opening up the Gulf area "is a positive step forward to reversing the trend of higher natural gas prices," said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Landrieu said making the legislation law is "vital for the nation because it increases energy production along America's only Energy Coast and restores the wetlands that protect some of our nation's most critical energy infrastructure."

Suzi Fox, holder of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sea turtle permit on Anna Maria Island and director of the local Turtle Watch, said if the drilling legislation becomes law, volunteers may need to undergo precautionary training for dealing with oil spills.

"It has not been an issue we have needed training for so far," Fox said.

"I hope the future sees that the environment should always take a higher precedence over money," she added.

Passage of the legislation was the subject of some discussion among people who visited both the Turtle Watch and Florida Institute of Saltwater Heritage Preserve booths at Winterfest, the juried art show in Holmes Beach over the weekend.

"The Gulf is our most precious resource here and I can't believe they're going to risk it for royalties for Big Oil," said Holmes Beach resident Carla MacIntosh.