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Significance of Interior Drawing Administrative Boundaries in Eastern Gulf Disputed

The Bush administration has drawn new boundaries in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that give Louisiana authority over waters that are close to 100 miles from Florida's shores, and includes portions of the gas-rich Lease Sale 181, according to a legislative aide for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), a staunch opponent of oil and gas drilling off the Sunshine State's coastline. But Interior Department and offshore industry officials say Nelson's office is overreacting.

At issue is the significance of the Interior Department's recent drawing of an administrative line that places the eastern boundary of offshore Louisiana in the natural gas-prone eastern Gulf of Mexico. Bridget Walsh, deputy legislative director for Nelson, claims that the administrative line drawn in the eastern Gulf and through the gas-rich Lease Sale 181 gives energy-friendly Louisiana leverage to press for exploration and production in the millions of acres of waters that historically have been considered closest to Florida, an avid drilling opponent. A map of the administrative line drawn by Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) was published in the Jan. 3rd issue of the Federal Register.

"It's very suspect when they [Interior] draw these lines two weeks before they are to come out with a [draft] five-year-leasing plan" for leasing activity on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) during the upcoming 2007-2012 period, Walsh told NGI. It's "almost certain" now that the agency will seek to open up closed portions of Lease 181 to drilling in the five-year plan, she contends. Interior is expected to issue its draft five-year leasing plan at the end of this month.

By drawing the administrative line through the eastern Gulf, Interior in effect is telling "Florida [that] you have no beef because this [Lease 181 region] is off the coast of the state of Louisiana" now, Walsh said.

If Walsh's suspicions are correct, it would mean that Interior has done an about-face. Last August, when Interior initiated the process to develop the five-year leasing plan, Secretary Gale Norton reaffirmed the Bush administration's pledge not to conduct any new leasing under the 2007-2012 plan within 100 miles of the Florida coast (see NGI, Sept. 5, 2005).

Interior indicated in the Federal Register that the administrative lines were drawn to primarily accommodate alternative energy projects on the OCS, but Walsh said this "has implications far beyond that."

She noted that Nelson plans to introduce legislation when the Senate returns later this month to block Interior's efforts to redraw boundaries. He wants his bill to have bipartisan support from the entire Florida delegation, she said.

Nelson's office is "definitely" overreacting to the agency's drawing of administrative lines off coastal states, countered MMS spokesman Gary Strasburg. "It's not our intent to have these [lines] be anything other than a convenience for us" to determine "which state we need to talk to" regarding offshore energy projects, he noted.

Strasburg acknowledged, however, that Interior Secretary Gale Norton could rely on the administrative lines in developing her draft five-year leasing plan. "It would be up to the secretary to determine whether she wants to use the lines in [crafting] her five-year leasing plan. It's possible for her to do that."

An energy industry source agreed with Strasburg, noting that Nelson's office "was probably making more of this than it actually is."

At this moment, "the import of this [MMS's action] is unclear," said Michael Kearns, a spokesman for the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the offshore industry. MMS "may choose in the future to realign the planning areas to coincide with these [administrative] lines, but that's unclear" at this time, he noted.

The administrative lines "could theoretically mean something down the road," especially if coastal states are allowed to share offshore royalties with the federal government, Kearns said.

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