Florida Drilling Ban Riles Alabama Delegation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.) was back in his home state with President Bush last week when the House voted to stop drilling off the coast of Florida for another year.

It would be fair to say that it made him mad. This week, he fired back. No drilling off Florida's coast? No natural gas pipeline to Florida.

As chairman of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, Callahan inserted language into a bill that would prevent further construction on the proposed Gulf Stream Pipeline that is designed to deliver natural gas, the chief fuel for electricity generation, to Florida.

"It's a real simple point," said Callahan spokesman Jo Bonner. "Most people can't have their cake and eat it at the same time."

Florida's representatives are fighting back with an amendment of their own, which they say would "ensure that Floridians are not punished" for the effort by their elected officials to protect the state's "pristine coastlines."

The matter, which is expected to come to a vote today, marks the latest chapter in a battle over the need to protect the environment versus the need to generate more energy. It is a rancorous topic that already has pitted Bush against his brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida.

The vote against offshore drilling near Florida's coast, a ban backed by Jeb Bush, came as the House also voted to block oil and gas development on national monuments. Both votes, coming in the GOP-controlled chamber, were considered serious blows to the White House's energy policy.

Enter Callahan's slap at his Gulf Coast neighbor. "We're the ones having to build in our backyard," Bonner said. "If they don't support the drilling, that's their prerogative. But they shouldn't turn around and want to benefit from the resources they refuse to acknowledge that they need."

Callahan's move--dubbed "payback" by Florida's delegation--caused the Sunshine State's Democratic and Republican House members to band together, just as they did to push through the proposal to thwart the oil and gas drilling.

"This week, I am writing to again ask the delegation to stay united, as our state is once again under attack," wrote Rep. Jim Davis, a Democrat, to the 23-member delegation.

Floridians on Capitol Hill acknowledge the timing of the vote on offshore drilling effectively left out Alabama's delegation, which did not know the vote was imminent. All but one member from Alabama had gone back home for Bush's prearranged visit.

The area at the heart of the controversy is known as Lease Sale 181, a 6-million-acre expanse that starts about 15 miles offshore from Alabama and 100 miles off Florida, and is believed to contain substantial amounts of natural gas and oil. While fought by Florida, the exploration was supported by Alabama and other Gulf states.

Florida's legislators say that Callahan's move to stop the pipeline is not an appropriate response to what they categorize as an unintentional snub of Alabama.

"Do you have to have oil drilling in your state to get power?" asked Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.)."I think a lot of states will be in trouble if that's our standard."

Drilling has emerged as one of the most sensitive subjects on the Hill. Debate began Wednesday in the House over expanding gas drilling under the Great Lakes--something Midwest politicians hope to ban with an amendment similar to that of Florida's delegation.

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