US Interior Department cancels drilling off Florida coast but sells leases in Eastern Gulf of Mexico

Succumbing to Congressional defeat and widespread public hostility, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has announced that drilling for oil and gas will not take place off the Florida coast, but much further out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Norton made the announcement on 2 July, following a heavy Congressional defeat (see related story), over proposals central to the Bush Administration’s energy plan to expand development of national fossil fuel reserves (see related story). However, drilling will be permitted in a portion of the Outer Continental Shelf, also known as Sale 181. “We have listened and worked carefully with officials and affected citizens around the 181 lease area,” Norton said. The outcome, she said was “a balanced and common sense proposal”, which has adjusted the area for exploration from 5.9 million acres to 1.5 million acres, all of which is at least 100 miles from any portion of the Florida coast.

The 181 Area will help the US reduce its dependence on foreign oil and helps to meet the President’s “commitment to develop our nation’s energy needs in an environmentally safe way”, she said. The Department projects the adjusted area contains 1.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – enough to serve one million families for 15 years – as well as 185 million barrels of oil – enough to fuel the automobiles of a million families for nearly six years.

In addition, the Secretary said, funds from the lease sale will fund environmental protection. Since 1982, the Department has collected $110.4 billion from onshore and offshore leases, of which $16.3 billion has gone to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

However, many Floridinians and environmentalists are still not happy with the Administration’s scaled-down area, but are relieved that they have been listened to. “While the Interior Department proposal cancels all leases off the Florida coast and represents a victory for Florida, that victory is only a partial one because it would still allow new leases in the eastern gulf that further encroach on our shores,” commented Mark Ferrulo, Director of Florida’s division of the NGO Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). “This is by no means a perfect proposal, but it certainly represents a larger buffer zone of protection for Florida’s pristine and fragile coastline than we have ever seen in the past. No five year leasing plan in history has provided Florida this level of protection from new leasing and, while we wish it went further, we are pleased that it is moving in the right direction.”

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