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Florida Lawmakers Condemn Boundary Changes in Eastern Gulf

New administrative lines drawn by the Interior Department that place the eastern boundaries of offshore Louisiana and Alabama deep into the gas-prone eastern Gulf of Mexico area of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) have come under fire from Florida lawmakers and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA).

Florida House lawmakers forwarded a letter to Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton last Tuesday condemning the agency's drawing of new boundaries in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that they charge would give Louisiana and Alabama authority over waters that are close to Florida's shores, including portions of the gas-rich Lease Sale 181. The new boundaries would come as close as 100 miles off Florida's coast.

"While the long-term effects of this change remain unclear, we are concerned that this is yet another attempt to undermine Florida's ability to control activities off of its own coast, including offshore oil and gas drilling," wrote Reps. Mark Foley (R-FL) and Jim Davis (D-FL). "Anytime such changes are being considered, decision-makers should be made aware of the full impact of such a proposal, including how it will affect our environment, economy and national security. Unfortunately, this administrative boundary change was published with no notice and no opportunity for public comment."

A map of the administrative boundaries drawn by Interior's Mineral Management Service (MMS) was published in the Jan. 3 issue of the Federal Register. At the time, Bridget Walsh, deputy legislative director for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), said the new boundaries gave energy-friendly Louisiana and Alabama leverage to press for exploration and production in the millions of acres of waters that historically had been considered under the control of Florida, an avid opponent of oil and gas drilling (see NGI, Jan. 16).

She further claimed that it was "very suspect" that Interior was drawing new boundaries just before it was to release its five-year leasing plan for activity on the OCS during the 2007-2012 period. Interior is expected to issue a draft five-year leasing plan by the end of this month.

"This administrative act would allow Alabama and Louisiana to have a greater say over energy-related activities in Lease Sale area 181, an area of the Gulf of Mexico where drilling is currently prohibited," said Foley and Davis. The Lease 181 area, which covers nearly six million acres, has been at the center of the heated debate over offshore drilling. The northeastern part of Lease Sale 181, an area commonly referred to as the "stovepipe," comes within 16 miles of Pensacola's beaches, the lawmakers said.

"We will continue working together, using whatever means necessary, to ensure that Florida maintains control of offshore activities near our coast. Furthermore, we hope that in the future the Department of Interior will consult with us and give the people most affected by its decisions an opportunity to comment," said Foley and Davis.

In a separate statement Davis said Interior, as a result of the boundary change, "will now [have to] consult Louisiana and Alabama officials regarding drilling projects in millions of acres of water [that once were] considered solely under the jurisdiction of Florida." Lease Sale 181, which Florida lawmakers have fought to protect, would now be divided between Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, he noted.

Interior's boundary change is a "double whammy" for Florida, Davis contends. It "gives drilling-friendly officials in Louisiana and Alabama undue influence in decisions about projects off our shores; and then, when a project that threatens our coasts is approved, the rule strips Floridians of any financial returns from drilling operations."

Chairman Pombo drew a map last October that was "certainly more equitable to the [coastal] states," said spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli. He is "talking to MMS to try to find out what's going on here and what's next," she said.

The Foley-Davis letter was co-signed by a number of other Florida lawmakers, including Sen. Nelson, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) House Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Ginny Brown-Waite, Connie Mack, Michael Bilirakis, Clay Shaw, Katherine Harris and Jeff Miller, and House Democrats Alcee Hastings, Robert Wexler, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Corrine Brown and Allen Boyd.

MMS contends that Florida lawmakers are overreacting to the agency's drawing of administrative boundaries off the Gulf coastal states. "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, a spokesman for the agency told NGI earlier this month. He acknowledged, however, that Secretary Norton could rely on the new boundaries to develop her draft five-year leasing plan.

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

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