Blood and oil

In politics, is blood thicker than oil? In the case of the Bush administration, it's a definite maybe.

In politics, is blood thicker than oil? In the case of the Bush administration, it's a definite maybe.

Early in his administration, President George W. Bush has been forced back into the swampy realm of Florida politics, courtesy of younger brother Jeb, the state's Republican governor. Instead of contested ballots, the issue between the two is US energy policy, and Jeb's pedigree could hurt his standing with environmentally sensitive voters who fear he will cave in to big brother's wishes on offshore drilling. In Florida, mistrust of the industry runs deep; this left the governor little choice but to ask the US Department of the Interior 2 days into the new administration to cancel Outer Continental Shelf Lease Sale 181.

Guilt by association

Before the presidential election, Florida officials expressed "almost zero" opposition to the sale, because it would take place in federal waters about 100 miles off the state, according to Interior officials. Post-election, "the tone changed 180(," says a key Interior source. Other states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, loudly support the December sale, the first in the region since 1988. Even the supposedly drillbit-phobic administration of President Bill Clinton had endorsed the sale as a way to boost domestic gas supplies.

But George W. clearly appreciates his brother's position, even if it runs counter to the increased public land access mantra espoused by his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and Republican congressional leaders. Both Bush brothers, and their father before them, have consistently opposed drilling off Florida and California because of the political realities of those tourism-dependent states. And the famous truism that all politics is local still applies. Jeb hopes to be reelected in 2002, and George W. is mindful that his own environmental record is under siege as well.

How the Bush family will balance these political realities with past promises to expand industry access to federal resources is uncertain.

Catch-22

MMS predicts up to 240 million bbl of oil and 1.8 tcf of gas may be recovered from the Sale 181 leases. And over the next 20 years, Florida's consumption of natural gas is expected to grow more than 140%, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Industry supporters on Capitol Hill say the White House will not abandon support for the sale, but there is a chance Bush may not actively stop congressional opposition, either. Most of the Florida delegation, including Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who chairs the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, wants to block the sale (OGJ, Apr. 9, 2001, p. 7).

So far, outside Florida there is bipartisan support-both Senate Republican and Democratic energy plans endorse Sale 181. Yet if Republican leaders hope to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year, compromises must be given.

To end a stalemate, the White House may pare back Sale 181 to avoid the disputed region off Florida, or it may discourage drilling in the disputed Destin Dome area closer in to the Florida panhandle.

Yet any decision to block Destin Dome development could also have a chilling effect on the pending lease sale, warn Interior officials.

"If you try to kill Destin Dome, you kill the lease sale too, because you are creating an atmosphere of legal uncertainty," a veteran Interior official said.

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