Senator asks Defense secretary for thoughts on OCS plan

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 12 -- US Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates for his reaction to US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan to expand federal oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

“We’ve talked many times about the value of the joint military training environment in the eastern [gulf],” Nelson said in an Apr. 8 letter to Gates. “In essence, you have told me the Department of Defense believes the areas east of the Military Mission Line in the [gulf] were critical to pilot and other personnel training and the testing of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems.”

That view was consistent with one which Gates’ predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, expressed in a 2005 letter “in which he wrote that drilling in this area of the gulf was incompatible with the military’s mission,” the senator said.

Nelson told Gates that the Obama administration’s Mar. 31 announcement of a new US Outer Continental Shelf strategy include a proposal to open more of the eastern gulf within the military training range. “In light of this, I’d like to meet with you to hear your views on how the proposal squares with the needs of the military,” he said.

Nelson said Congress would have to amend the 2006 law that he and his then-US Senate colleague from Florida, Republican Mel Martinez, supported to protect the military range and the state’s coastal tourism while increasing domestic oil and gas production.

“So far, I’ve managed to get the [Interior department] to keep any proposed exploration beyond 125 miles off Florida’s gulf coast to protect the state’s tourism-driven economy and its environment,” said Nelson. “We in Florida also need to make sure the Atlantic coast has adequate protections.”

‘With sensitivity’
Salazar said on Mar. 31 that his plan to expand federal leasing in the eastern gulf would require congressional removal of a moratorium. “My determination to draw the potential line for where we drill in the eastern gulf is based on where we believe the resources are. We believe most of it is more than 125 miles off the coast, and that it can be developed with sensitivity to the needs of businesses there and military training needs,” he told reporters.

Sen. George S. LeMieux (R-Fla.), whom Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appointed on Aug. 28, 2009, to complete Martinez’s term after he resigned, said on Mar. 31 that “safe and clean technologies used far enough from our shores is a proposal worth considering, but only if Florida’s interests are protected and we benefit from the proceeds just like other states.” Considerations must include protection of the state’s pristine beaches and the military’s training needs in the gulf, he added.

Some US House members from Florida expressed strong opposition to Salazar’s proposal. Democrat Corinne Brown said on Apr. 1 that drilling for oil anywhere near the state’s coast, even if it is 125 miles offshore, could devastate its tourist industry. “Additionally, the president’s plan would allow drilling just 50 miles off the coast of Virginia; certainly, if this were translated to Florida’s coasts, it would have dire consequences for the state,” she said.

“Drilling for oil off of Florida’s west coast beaches would be a serious threat to our economy and jobs,” said Kathy Castor, another Democrat, while a third, Alcee L. Hastings, said that the nation’s economic future depends on the country being at the forefront of the next generation of sustainable energy. “Instead, this proposal is more of the same and is leaving us even further behind the technological curve,” he said.

Republican Ander Crenshaw was more favorable. “We have to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil. That’s why I think drilling offshore makes sense,” he said in a television interview posted at his web site. “As long as it doesn’t interrupt military training and is done in an environmentally sensitive way, I think that’s the way to go.”

In his letter, Nelson told Gates that he has made clear to Salazar that he is waiting to hear from the Defense secretary on whether expanding eastern gulf oil and gas leasing “poses a risky commercial intrusion into the last unfettered training range for our military,” adding, “I look forward to meeting with you soonest on this important matter.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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