A good deal on oil drilling

A good deal on oil drilling

A few months ago, a bipartisan compromise on offshore drilling worked out by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez appeared to be the best outcome for the state. The Republican-led House wanted less protection for Florida beaches and refused to accept the Senate’s offer. Then a funny thing happened in the recent election. Republicans lost control of the next Congress, so House leaders were suddenly ready to deal.

Despite objections from some Democrats and environmentalists, the Senate bill passed both chambers as the lame-duck session ended Saturday and will become law with President Bush’s signature. Did Florida win or lose?

Mostly, it won. While some of the eastern gulf will be open to oil exploration, that was inevitable. The question has always been where to draw the line. If prodrilling forces had gotten their way, and they almost did when Gov. Jeb Bush backed their efforts, oil rigs could have been erected as close as 50 miles of Florida’s coast.

Nelson and Martinez pushed that boundary back to 125 miles off the Panhandle and 235 miles off Tampa Bay area beaches. They also got the moratorium on drilling inside that boundary extended 10 years to 2022. Finally, the current ban on offshore drilling elsewhere in the United States will remain in force until 2012.

Some antidrilling critics of the bill suggested that lawmakers wait for Democrats to take control of Congress next year and then try to ban all offshore drilling. That wasn’t a credible plan. Some of the oil industry’s strongest supporters on this issue are Democrats. In fact, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who will be the next chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, supported drilling much closer to Florida.

Drilling has gotten safer when it comes to offshore spills, though environmental watchdogs need to remain vigilant. If a spill occurs, the added distance from Florida should help protect the coast. And yes, it was a trade-off. The region opened to drilling is expected to supply large quantities of natural gas, a critical component of the nation’s and the state’s economy.

Where Congress came up short was in support for two other keys to energy independence: conservation and alternative fuels. The quickest way to relieve the demand for oil is through improved fuel efficiency in passenger cars and trucks. Both Democrats and Republicans have backed down from forcing higher mileage standards on the automobile industry. As for developing a viable alternative-fuels program, more is needed than feel-good rhetoric and selling out to corn producers.

It was easy enough to criticize Republicans for lacking a comprehensive energy plan. Once Democrats are in charge of Congress, however, they will need to find a balance between weaning the nation from foreign oil and providing for our energy needs – all while protecting the environment and keeping prices within reason. That task will be more difficult than drawing a line in the gulf.

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