The Politics of Drilling

How Florida's junior senator got entangled in the debate over ANWR

| Sun Mar. 27, 2005 4:00 AM EST

Last week, the Senate fell two votes short of passing a budget amendment that would have blocked oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). The vote makes ANWR drilling an increasingly likely reality, though not yet a foregone conclusion: drilling advocates still face several more procedural hurdles in Congress before the refuge can be opened to exploration. In the meantime, all eyes should be fixed on Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), who, despite casting the key pro-drilling vote last week, could still play a pivotal role in sinking the entire plan.

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Martinez, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during President Bush's first term, was elected to the Senate in Florida last year on the heels of strong administration support. The president had encouraged Martinez to step down and run in Florida so as to strengthen the Republican Party's presence there. But in order to run competitively in Florida, where voters have shown widespread opposition to any sort of drilling off the state's coast, Martinez had to run on an anti-drilling platform. (Even Governor Jeb Bush has adopted a similar stance.) And so, when the Senate began discussing the budget early this year, Martinez made it known that he would support the president on ANWR, so long as Florida got something in return.

Martinez' vote turned out to be crucial: Had he voted for the amendment to block the opening of ANWR, there is reason to believe that at least one other Democratic senator would have switched votes and killed the drilling effort. Given that the House decided not to include ANWR in their budget—which only barely passed, 218-214, as it was—Senate support was the only way drilling was going to stand a chance.

So what did Martinez receive in exchange for his vote? On March 16th, one day before the Senate vote, Martinez was given assurance from the Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, that the federal moratorium on offshore drilling—which affects Florida and other coastal states—would be extended for another five years, from 2007 to 2012. At first, this seemed like a perfect compromise for Martinez, who could remain loyal to the White House and still bring back something for his Floridian constituents.

But those plans hit a major snag when Florida papers reported that the moratorium on offshore drilling had already been extended through 2012 under President Clinton, six years ago. Furthermore, Norton had made the exact same promise to Florida's other Senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, back in 2003. Martinez's office quickly attempted to clarify the situation, pointing out that the deal he struck with the White House also included an area of slightly more than a million acres called the "Stovepipe", which had previously been exempted from the moratorium. (Technically off Alabama's shore, the stovepipe already has three active drilling leases.)

Perhaps of greater concern to Floridians, though, Martinez had passed up an opportunity to protect an even more environmentally important area: the eastern portion of an area known as "L.S. 181", sized at over 3 million acres and far closer to the bulk of Florida's gulf coast. On March 17, in response to the news about Martinez, Senator Nelson informed Secretary Norton that unless this area was granted the same protection that she extended to the stovepipe, he would hold up her nomination of Patricia Lynn Scarlet to Deputy Secretary of the Interior—a nomination which had been unanimously approved by committee last week.

Ever since Martinez' deal with the White House was exposed last week, the senator has tried to control the political fallout by reiterating several of his original campaign pledges. He vowed to introduce legislation aimed at making the moratorium on drilling off Florida's shores permanent, and to work to buy back active offshore-drilling leases that experts like Mark Ferrulo, Director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, regard as the largest threat to Florida's coast. "What seems to go unmentioned in all of this," Ferrulo says, "is that Florida's offshore areas are still littered with active leases." Progress on both issues, according to Ferrulo, will require bipartisan support, and Florida voters are watching closely to see if Martinez can get something done.

Meanwhile, Ferrulo contends that Martinez could still decide to change his position and lobby against ANWR in Congress as a result of the uproar back home, although no one's placing any bets just yet. Instead, the best hope for keeping ANWR off-limits from drilling may be that House and Senate leaders, who have not agreed on a budget in each of the last two years, may fail once again. House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-IA) recently told reporters, "It is very disappointing to watch what's going on over there [in the Senate]. I'm not sure how we get a conference with the Senate with the product where they're at." With major differences on Medicaid, spending, taxation, as well as ANWR, the joint-budget committee could still fall apart.

If the committee fails to draft a joint budget by April 15th, ANWR drilling could only proceed as its own legislation, requiring at least 60 votes to pass. Pro-drilling advocates have already admitted that the budget process is their best opportunity and expressed concern that the senate votes just aren’t there. According to Athan Manuel, Director of the US PIRG's Arctic Wilderness Campaign, if Congressional leaders think that ANWR won't make it through the budget, or if the budget itself is not going anywhere, they may try to insert a drilling measure in the Energy Bill—which could be drafted as soon as early April.

On the other hand, if Congress does manage to produce a joint-budget that includes a measure to drill in ANWR, they will still need to go through the budget reconciliation process and pass the final budget through both chambers, which is far from a trivial process. According to Manuel, "The Budget reconciliation process is the last and perhaps the best chance to block drilling." Anti-drilling lobbyists could still influence policymakers to strike ANWR language from the budget. Martinez could be a powerful force here; yet his intention to do so remains in question.

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