Fireworks erupted Tuesday on the Senate floor between Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, over the issue of changing the 20-year-old moratorium on drilling on the federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

Within an hour of the start of floor consideration of the Senate energy bill, Nelson said he and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) would filibuster the broad energy measure if an amendment was offered to remove the congressional moratorium on oil and natural gas activity on much of the OCS, including the area off the coasts of Florida.

Words were exchanged when Nelson learned that Domenici had sent a recommended resolution of the issue to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who may offer a moratorium amendment, but had failed to provide him with the details. “I think it’s curious [that] language is being shared with [Landrieu] but not this senator,” Nelson told Domenci.

“It’s not an effort to avoid Florida,” said Domenici, who asked Nelson to put the moratorium issue on hold so that the Senate could debate an ethanol measure. “We can’t just drop everything for Florida. We know you’re going to win. Nothing’s going to happen to Florida.”

Nelson refused to yield the floor until he saw a “good faith effort” from Domenici. He received a statement just before 5 p.m. EDT Tuesday from the chairman. “I don’t think it’s anything fabulous,” Domenici remarked.

Details of the statement were not immediately known.

The two Florida senators are prepared to give “lengthy speeches…in order to keep this moratorium in place,” Nelson warned senators, particularly Domenici, manager of the energy bill on the Senate floor. “And it’s not only the senators from Florida that are interested in this,” but the senators from East Coast and West Coast states as well, he said.

“If we cannot get agreement from the chairman and ranking [Democratic] member that they will oppose a change in the moratorium…we have no choice but to use the tools available to us as senators…in which to prolong debate” and prevent the bill from coming up for a vote, Nelson said. The Florida senators “are prepared to take our stand,” he noted.

But “I don’t think [that’s] going to be necessary,” the Florida lawmaker said. He noted that negotiations have been ongoing with the staffs of Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, ranking Democrat on the Senate energy panel, to agree to language opposing any expansion of drilling on the OCS and Lease Sale 181, which is off Florida’s coast.

“The last thing I want to do is stand on this injured leg for hours and hours” filibustering the energy bill, Nelson said, adding that he had injured his leg over the weekend.

Domenici interrupted Nelson’s speech, noting that “we understand your genuine concern, and you’re going to have plenty of opportunity as the bill moves along to make sure that your state is protected.”

Domenici further noted that he had met several times with Martinez to discuss the OCS moratorium issue, and assured Nelson “we don’t intend to do anything to harm Florida.”

The source of Nelson’s concern is a possible Landrieu amendment that would give states the opportunity to opt out of the congressional moratorium on drilling in much of the federal OCS. Leaders reportedly were trying to dissuade Landrieu Tuesday from offering her amendment in favor of more coastal impact assistance funds for her state.

Martinez said Florida’s coasts “[are] not open for consideration.” He further opposed a section in the Senate energy bill that calls for an inventory to be conducted of the oil and natural gas resources in the OCS. “Why would we inventory an area where we’re never going to drill?” he asked. It’s like telling pro-drilling interests to “come and get it.”

He called for the entire package of so-called “coastal killer amendments” to be rejected. These include proposals to redraw the boundaries for each state; give states the opportunity to opt out of the OCS moratorium; and provide more financial incentives for states to opt out.

Martinez doesn’t buy proponents’ arguments that if one state opts out of the ban against OCS drilling, a neighboring state would be unaffected. “If Alabama opts out, you bring drilling to Florida’s shores whether we like it or not,” he said.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said it was time for the Senate to reconsider the OCS moratorium, saying, “I believe it’s time to explore, where appropriate, more of the vast reserves that we have offshore.” He believes oil and gas drilling can be done without affecting states’ coastlines. “Drilling rigs can be put far off [the] coast so they can’t be seen,” he noted.

“If Virginia, North Carolina or Florida agree [that they’d] like to put oil and gas rigs so far offshore that they can’t see them, and use some of those revenues to build up their universities or lower their property taxes, I think they should be able to,” Alexander said.

As a member of the House of Representatives in the 1980s, Nelson said he fought attempts by the Reagan administration to lift the OCS drilling moratorium on two occasions, and won both times. At the time, he said he successfully argued that drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would interfere with the restricted airspace for the military.

“You can’t have coordinated [military] exercises if you have…oil rigs” in the region, Nelson said.

While not representing a coastal state, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said the odds were against the Senate lifting the OCS moratorium in the Senate bill now on the floor. “I don’t think there’s a ghost of a chance of us finishing this energy bill and having it carry some new mandate for Outer Continental Shelf production. That’s just not going to happen.”

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