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Bush Promotes Drilling Proposal

Times Staff Writer

Even as energy companies and his own administration call for more aggressive oil and gas exploration in U.S. waters, President Bush told drilling opponents in this politically crucial state Friday that they should “rest easy.”

But despite the reassuring language, Bush in fact was embracing the very drilling expansion proposal that had riled environmentalists and Florida politicians of both parties.

Bush said he was committed to preventing oil drilling within 100 miles of the state’s Gulf Coast.

But that stance would allow a dramatic encroachment by oil rigs, which under an administration proposal would be permitted to move into parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico that are off-limits now.

“I made a commitment that nothing is going to happen within a hundred miles of this coastline, and I’m honoring the commitment,” the president said.

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“When we say 100 miles off the coastline, we don’t mean 99 miles or 89 miles, we mean 100 miles,” he added, addressing audience questions during a daylong visit to Florida. “So rest easy.”

Citing rising gas prices and a need to reduce dependence on foreign oil sources, some Republicans are backing legislation that would shrink protected areas off the Florida and California coasts.

Democrats in California and Florida -- and even Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, who served in Bush’s Cabinet -- say the 100-mile limit is not enough.

Bush and his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have been criticized in recent months as appearing to back away from their 2002 commitment to keep a large tract of the Gulf of Mexico rig-free -- a pledge that came as they faced reelection battles for their respective posts. Florida had decided the 2000 presidential election by 537 votes.

President Bush’s remarks, delivered to a crowd in Tampa before he helped raise $3 million for Florida Republicans at a Disney World resort here, underscored the pressure points of his new pledge to alleviate what he has called the country’s “addiction” to oil.

The president made that promise during his State of the Union address last month. But since then, administration officials have continued to push for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and exploration in other areas.

The issue has quickly emerged as a major topic in this year’s congressional and state-level campaigns -- a particular concern in Florida, where the GOP is hoping to pick up a Senate seat and retain the governor’s mansion as Jeb Bush leaves office.

The Republican candidates for governor have avoided the issue, whereas Democrats plan to paint the GOP as favoring oil companies over the environment.

Environmentalists and other drilling opponents in Congress -- including Florida’s two U.S. senators -- were critical this month when Bush’s Interior Department unveiled a plan to permit drilling in 2 million acres of Gulf waters that were previously protected, including waters as close as 100 miles to Florida’s shores.

Republican senators, led by Energy Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, would go farther -- causing alarm among drilling opponents in California as well.

Florida’s overwhelmingly Republican congressional delegation has grown divided, with some backing a compromise on Gulf drilling, citing rising energy costs and a need to become less reliant on Middle East oil.

But Martinez and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat facing reelection, are opposing President Bush and Domenici. They have said the administration plan would jeopardize Florida’s vital tourism industry by putting its beaches at risk, and they have proposed a plan that would prohibit drilling within 150 miles of the coast.

Unlike the administration plan, the senators are calling for a permanent buffer to protect the state once a series of moratoriums begins expiring next year.

Martinez appeared Friday night with the president at the GOP fundraiser, but said in an interview that he was troubled by Bush’s position.

“He’s about 50 miles off,” Martinez said. “I’m very interested in permanent protection -- finding a permanent buffer. Obviously, 150 miles is much better for Florida than 100.”


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