Norton: MMS On Track for Eastern Gulf Sale

The Eastern Gulf of Mexico Sale 181, which covers an area about 64 miles offshore Louisiana, 15 miles offshore Alabama and at least 100 miles offshore Florida, is still on track for December, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said last week --- even though her boss President Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have voiced opposition to opening up Florida's coast for drilling.

The Minerals Management Service is "still planning to move forward," Norton said, noting there had been no decision whether to reduce the size of the proposed sale, which covers about 5.9 million acres. Gov. Bush has said that drilling off the Florida coast would hurt tourism, and President Bush has agreed with him in the past. The Eastern Gulf has been closed to federal oil and gas leasing for almost 13 years.

Currently, MMS is preparing documents to conduct the sale, which now covers 1,033 blocks in the region. A draft environmental impact statement closed for public comment in January and public hearings will be held in several cities along the Gulf Coast in July. Following the public hearings, the governors of the affected states would be asked for any comments. If all goes according to plan, MMS would publish its final notice of sale available to the public in October, with the sale held in December.

The Eastern Gulf planning area extends along the Gulf's northeastern coast for about 700 miles from Baldwin County, AL, southward to the Florida Keys. The area encompasses 76 million acres, with water depths as deep as 9,900 feet.

In 1995, MMS estimated that between 7.5-8.7 Tcf and 1.6-2.5 B bbl are contained in the Eastern Gulf. However, since the late 1980s, there has been only a limited amount of shelf activity because of administrative deferrals and annual congressional moratoria. The first of 10 natural gas and oil lease sales was held in 1959, resulting in 23 leases. To date, 47 exploratory wells have been drilled, with 13 discovering natural gas, condensate and crude oil.

Additional sales were held in the 1970s and 1980s, and to date, there are 146 active leases in the planning area. However, there are no active federal leases off southwest Florida, in the Straits of Florida Planning Area or off Florida's east coast.

To learn more about the scheduled public hearings, contact the MMS Eastern Gulf Information Office at (850) 433-2279.

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