Senators have sent opposing letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton on the issue of oil and natural gas leasing in off-limit regions of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, along with Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), called on Norton last week to request public comments on the “appropriateness of leasing in both moratoria and non-moratoria areas on the OCS” during the 2007-2012 lease sale period.

“We believe that comments should be solicited on the possibility of issuing natural gas-only leases in the moratoria areas on the OCS during this period,” the three senators said in a Dec. 7 letter to Norton.

“While oil prices have been consistently over $40 a barrel for several months, our country also faces a serious natural gas problem. Demand continues to increase…but supply is not keeping up with demand. The imbalance we face has been years in the making. Quite simply, we have pursued a policy that is in conflict with itself. On the one hand we encourage the use of natural gas in this country to meet our energy needs and environmental goals…However, we have ignored the supply side of the equation.”

With gas prices at more than $6/Mcf, the United States is losing a high number of manufacturing jobs overseas, the lawmakers noted. “It is our hope that the Request for Comments could begin a constructive discussion on creative and environmentally responsible solutions to this looming crisis.”

But in a separate letter, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) called on Norton to extend for another five years the current ban on oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coast that is set to expire in 2007. “We can’t allow oil and gas drilling to come any closer,” wrote Nelson, a long-time opponent of drilling off the state’s coast. “If an exception is made for natural gas, then oil rigs will follow.”

Drilling off the Florida coastline has been prohibited since the 1980s, the senator said. The East and West Coasts also are under drilling moratoria.

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