WASHINGTON – The new head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has offered an alternative to the president's national energy plan and prompted one Florida congressman to sharply criticize his state's Democratic senators, charging them with hypocrisy.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., last month introduced legislation, co-sponsored by now Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., that includes measures to open drilling for natural gas in the sea bed off the coast of Florida.
President Bush has also endorsed efforts to open up domestic continental shelf areas for energy exploration as part of his comprehensive national energy plan.
The area that Bingaman wants to open for drilling, called Lease Area 181, is 5.9 million acres located in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Interior Minerals Management Service estimates that the entire area could contain up to 370 million barrels of oil and 3.2 trillion cubic feet of gas.
'It's Wrong, It's False, and It Should Cease'
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., is irritated over the proposal and called Bingaman's suggestion a "slap in the face of Florida's delegation who unanimously oppose drilling."
But for Foley, it's not just the proposal itself that's so galling. Foley finds it hypocritical that Florida's Democratic senators, Bill Nelson and Bob Graham, have blasted President Bush for his energy proposals and environmental record — as they did during Bush's trip to the Everglades last month — but not the Democratic leaders who are proposing a highly specific plan for drilling off the Florida coast
"Now, we in Florida — in the congressional delegation, the governor of our state Jeb Bush — strongly oppose oil drilling off our coast and we remain steadfast in opposition," Foley said on the House floor Tuesday. "But for the Democrats to sit there and to attack the president as being the only one that's advocating this position, it's wrong, it's false, and it should cease.
"Certainly they want to take advantage of a political opportunity to cast this president as an anti-environmentalist, and I say shame on you for that attack when one of your own members is a prime sponsor moving to, in fact, drill off the coast of Florida," he said.
Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker countered that the chairman's plan is "a modified version" of the president's and that Bingaman proposes drilling no closer than 100 miles from the Florida coast in an area that is ripe for drilling.
"We support increased production of oil and gas in places where the oil and gas industry is in place, like in the Gulf, and where it is well accepted," Wicker said.
Florida Senators Graham and Nelson have introduced legislation that would permanently prohibit leasing the area. Sen. Graham's spokeswoman, Caren Benjamin, said that the senator "will work with Senator Bingaman to work out a way to support at least portions" of his energy plan, but does not currently support the bill's provisions for drilling in the Gulf.
ANWR Provides Some Common Ground for Democrats
While Graham and Bingaman are at odds over drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, they both oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an area that the president has suggested could be opened to drilling. Bingaman's spokesman Wicker said that ANWR is "virgin territory" and should not be touched.
ANWR is estimated to have at least 4.8 billion barrels of crude oil and 34 trillion cubic feet of gas — more than ten times the amounts believed to be in Lease Area 181. Exploration would occur on 1.5 million acres and the area developed would be 2,000 to 5,000 acres.
Foley has not stated whether he supports drilling in ANWR, said spokesman Jeff Solsby, but said the congressman is not opposed to drilling in general.
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