President 'caved in to brother' over Florida oil

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A decision by the US President, George Bush, to scale back an oil-drilling plan in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, in what is seen as a concession to his brother, was criticised yesterday by both environmentalists and the energy industry.

Environmental groups said that, even though the proposal reduced the specific drilling areas by three-quarters, it would still open up the area in general to exploration, threatening beaches and coastline.

Supporters of the original plan in the oil industry, meanwhile, said the President had backed down because of pressure exerted by Jeb Bush. The Florida Governor, and younger brother of the President, was opposed to the drilling, largely because of environmental risk to the state's tourist industry.

"By caving in to Nimbyism in Florida, the Bush administration has decimated its own energy plan," said the Republican Representative David Vitter, of Louisiana. "I think this really just shuts down the opportunity to do anything productive to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

The plan to drill for oil in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico was first mooted by Bill Clinton's administration in 1997, which put forward six million acres for lease. Chevron, BP, Exxon Mobil and Shell are among the companies looking to take up the leases.

Drilling in what became known as area 181 was also an integral part of the Bush energy programme. The President cited the urgent need to open up more domestic energy supplies, but almost from the start the plan put him in a difficult situation. It pitted him not only against environmental groups but also against his brother. And Jeb Bush had the support of the state's influential congressional team in opposing the drilling. Administration officials privately admitted that the scaled-down plan was the only way of out of a political quandary.

The announcement was seen in Washington as a victory for the Florida Governor, for whom area 181 was turning into an Achilles' heel in the 2002 election race. Jeb Bush said it reflected "significant progress" in Florida's fight to protect its coastline. And he added: "I call this a win for the people of Florida. There's not going to be any drilling from a new lease sale off of Florida, and any off Alabama will be 100 miles off their borders. Floridians have spoken loud and clear and their voices have been heard by President Bush."

The reduced drilling area still contains 44 per cent of the oil and 47 per cent of the natural gasidentified within the original six million acres.

Gale Norton, the US Secretary of the Interior, who announced the new plan, said it still represented enough fuel for a million homes to cook for 15 years and to run a million cars for six years.

Mr Bush's reduced plan received the most outspoken criticism in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. All have coastlines on the eastern Gulf, but their energy sectors are far more important to local economies than tourism. The energy industry also indicated its disappointment, but its comments were more muted.

Environmentalists said the plan remained a serious threat. Carl Pope, of the Sierra Club environmental group, said: "This is still a dagger pointed at the heart of Florida's tourism industry and the Governor should be ashamed of himself for trying to call this a victory."

Sandy Johnston, director of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, said there was a real risk to tourism, which is worth $430m a year in his area alone. "Tourism is the driving force of this area in north-west Florida," he told The Washington Post. "You can't find this white sand anywhere else. One spill would destroy that."