But Gov. Bush said Wednesday that while he was "encouraged" by the signal from Norton, he would still fight any effort by his brother to open a 6-million-acre area off the coast of Florida and Alabama to drilling.
"While I am appreciative of the administration's commitment to working with us, I am also hopeful that they will agree to oppose any offshore oil drilling in [the gulf] and Chevron's plans to drill off the coast of Pensacola," Gov. Bush said Wednesday.
The two brothers are at odds over a pending government decision this summer that could open the area, dubbed Sale 181, to oil drilling. The White House next month is also planning to unveil a comprehensive energy strategy the White House has said will emphasize increasing domestic energy supplies by expanding oil exploration and production.
In a letter to Gov. Bush last month, Norton emphasized the value of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. "Because the energy resource potential of Sale 181 is estimated to be 396 million barrels of oil and 2.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, it can play an important role in our national energy strategy," Norton wrote April 9.
But Gov. Bush and a bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers on Capitol Hill balked, and on Wednesday the coalition introduced a bill that would bar drilling off Florida's coasts, including Sale 181 and the Straits of Florida near the Florida Keys. "Sound energy policy does not come at the expense of the environment or the economies of Florida's coastal communities," Democrat Sen. Bob Graham said. Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough and Democrat Rep. Jim Davis joined Graham to support the bill.
But on April, 24, Norton moved to cool the debate by signaling that the White House might put the Straits of Florida, near the Florida Keys, off the table for drilling. "One option would be to use the President's authority … to withdraw the area from futures leasing," Norton wrote Gov. Bush. Congressional sources said the offer meant little because any plan to drill near the picturesque Florida Keys would almost certainly bring universal condemnation.
And despite Norton's letter, Gov. Bush and Florida lawmakers in Washington still vowed to derail President Bush if he tries to allow drilling in Sale 181. Instead, Florida Republicans opposed to drilling massaged Norton's letter as a step in that direction. The Straits of Florida "won't be ground zero for drilling," Scarborough said. "It is a great first step."
But oil companies said the drilling could be key to leveraging more oil from domestic sources. "The industry is absolutely united that [Sale 181] represents huge resources that the rest of the country needs, and especially Florida," said Ken Leonard, a senior manager at the American Petroleum Institute.
Leonard also complained that the bill sponsored by Florida lawmakers would prohibit drilling in Alabama waters as well. "Now you have many of the other Gulf States saying, 'Wait a minute here.'"
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