OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Energy panel will back gulf drilling plan -- Dorgan

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will vote on an amendment today that would bring eastern Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leasing closer to Florida's coast.

"I expect my amendment to pass," said the measure's sponsor, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). The committee is resuming its markup of a broad energy bill this morning and hopes to complete the bill this week.

Dorgan said his amendment to the oil and gas title would shrink the no-leasing zone around Florida's gulf coast to 45 miles from shore, which is less than half the current buffer.

A 2006 energy law that widened gulf leasing had provided Florida a buffer of 125 miles until mid-2022, although it is 100 miles off part of the panhandle. "It is pretty simple, pretty straightforward. There are substantial reserves there," Dorgan told E&E.

Dorgan has been working with committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), according to Dorgan and Senate aides. A spokesman for Bingaman said the chairman's support would "depend on what the amendment ends up looking like" but noted Bingaman supports increased exploration in that part of the gulf.

"Bingaman has been pushing for expanded drilling in the eastern gulf for many years now," spokesman Bill Wicker said.

Dorgan said the bill does not include revenue sharing for coastal states, which Bingaman has long opposed but was included for Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama in the 2006 law, called the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act.

Dorgan said he has not spoken with Florida senators, who have opposed offshore drilling and negotiated the long-term buffer in 2006 that Dorgan's plan would reduce in size. But Dorgan called his plan "reasonable."

"This is triple the line of sight. Forty-five miles is a reasonable buffer zone I believe," he said. "An energy bill needs to have a balance of things, among which include production, and this is additional production of oil and gas."

According to the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, the eastern gulf -- which is one of three gulf "planning areas" along with the western and central gulf -- contains a mean estimate of 3.88 billion barrels of oil and 21.51 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said he believed a plan to expand eastern gulf leasing could succeed in the committee and the floor. "With the right restrictions, it probably could," he said. Asked if he would support it, Bayh repeated "with the right restrictions."

But a spokesman for ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Dorgan's plan is too modest. In an update on the energy bill circulated to reporters yesterday evening, spokesman Robert Dillon noted Dorgan's plan excludes the ocean region called Destin Dome, which is an area about 30 miles south of Pensacola believed to have considerable natural gas reserves.

Dillon's memo said that as of yesterday evening the Dorgan plan "says nothing about expedited judicial review, date-certain leasing or OCS revenue sharing," and would be unlikely to boost domestic production. He said Murkowski was readying amendments to "improve" the plan if a compromise was not worked out before the markup.

Overall, he said that between Republicans and Democrats about 20 amendments to the oil and gas title have been filed, though not all would be offered. Dillon said Republicans would press for "substantive" increases in onshore and offshore production, and revenue sharing for coastal states with offshore oil and gas development.