In offshore-drilling debate, Pombo rebukes Nelson

A proposal that would expand oil and natural-gas drilling in coastal waters that are currently off-limits has thrown the Florida delegation into turmoil.

And tension between supporters and opponents of the legislation has sparked a war of words between House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

Pombo’s panel passed a measure Wednesday that would create a 125-mile coastal zone where drilling for oil and natural gas would not be allowed. But legislatures and governors from coastal states can opt out and decide to allow drilling in the 125-mile region closest to shore, with natural-gas drilling as close as 25 miles offshore and oil drilling as close as 50 miles offshore.

Alabama and Florida would both have to agree before drilling in waters they share along their border, just off Pensacola, is allowed.

The bill also opens most of Lease Sale Area 181, an underwater tract that begins about 213 miles off Tampa Bay and is said to be rich in oil and gas.

It would give half the royalties energy companies now pay the federal government for drilling rights to states that allow drilling within their 125-mile area within the coastline. Some of that money would also be shared among coastal cities and counties. The bill protects areas key to Navy and Air Force training from drilling.

Pombo is planning to make his language part of the budget-reconciliation package the House will consider later this month.

As a staunch opponent of Pombo’s proposal, Nelson tried to block the legislation by arguing that it would harm national security by interfering with military training and testing activities in the eastern Gulf.

“For decades, the eastern Gulf of Mexico has provided our country’s Air Force, and more recently our Navy, with vital obstruction-free space for essential military testing and training,” Nelson wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to Pombo.

He emphasized that the proposal undermines a long-standing agreement between the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior that has allowed the training space to stay open.

Nelson attached several memorandums from Pentagon officials rejecting the idea of drilling in what is known as the Military Mission Line, east of which no drilling is allowed to take place.

His argument earned a sharply worded response from Pombo in a letter sent Oct. 25, one day before the legislation passed in the House.

“I admit to initial surprise at the tone of your letter on this proposal,” Pombo wrote in the letter obtained by The Hill.

“Upon further review of your letter, it occurs to me that you may have been unaware of what was in the proposal, which is why I am attaching a copy for your review. As stated earlier, any leasing under the proposal, and any subsequent actions, will primarily be a matter of coastal states to decide, for the first time.”

Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin characterized the response letter as “minor league.”

“The tone was personal and insulting, saying that the senator had not looked at his proposals,” McLaughlin said. “Senator Nelson’s goal was to make Representative Pombo aware of the facts. What Senator Nelson sent was a series of memos from inside the Pentagon, detailing the military’s reliance on the eastern Gulf for training exercise.”

Unlike many drilling initiatives, support for Pombo’s legislation does not break down along party lines. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) also opposes Pombo’s measure.

McLaughlin said Nelson and Martinez have “won” a pledge from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) that the energy bill and Senate’s version of the budget-reconciliation bill will not contain language allowing more drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.

“They take the chairman at his word,” he added. However, that does not mean that Domenici, who supports offshore drilling, won’t bring up language in a stand-alone bill later on.

“Just because Domenici does not put it forth, it does not mean that it does not come out in conference because the House will have it in their bill and it will be a conference item,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), an Armed Services committee member who backs Pombo’s bill.

Miller supports the language because it gives state officials the right to decide whether they wants to open up the state’s coastal areas to drilling.

“Currently all of the protection that is provided to the Florida coastline is done through federal legislation or presidential order,” he said. “I would like to see the destiny of Florida in the hands of Florida elected officials, rather than in those of oil drilling states.”

He also said that the military is comfortable with ther proposal as long as there is no drilling east of the Military Mission Line.

“I have checked and double-checked,” he said. “The activities that are west of the line do not impede their mission.”

While others in the Florida delegation are still reviewing the legislation and its implications, GOP Reps. Mark Foley and Connie Mack have vocally opposed it.

Mack “strongly opposes [the bill] because it would weaken the protection that Florida enjoys,” said Jeff Cohen, Mack’s spokesman. “This is an extraordinarily serious matter and it deserves serious debate.”

Mack, he said, is opposed to including the language in the budget-reconciliation package.

The bill is a “ruse” that is going to weaken Florida’s economic and environmental protection, Cohen added.

“It is being sold under the guise of an energy crisis,” he said. Mack is raising the issue with GOP leaders and is trying to keep the language out of the budget-reconciliation bill, Cohen said.