US to keep Florida drilling ban, says official

The Obama administration will maintain a long-standing oil drilling ban in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida after considering loosening it before the BP spill, a senior administration official told The Associated Press today.

Just a month before the spill started in April, the Obama administration had announced plans to allow drilling in the eastern portion of the Gulf as part of the management plan for the Outer Continental Shelf.

"In light of the BP spill, we've learned a lot and understand the need to elevate the safety and environmental standards," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision hadn't been announced yet. "We took a second look at the announced plan and modified it to remove the Eastern Gulf of Mexico from leasing consideration."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planned to discuss the decision this afternoon.

The eastern Gulf — an area stretching from 125 to 300 miles off Florida's coast — was singled out for protection by Congress in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida politicians that made available 8.3 million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf. Under that agreement, the protected region is to remain off limits to energy development until 2022.

But the administration had entertained the idea of expanded drilling, until the BP spill that spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. In order to open more of the eastern Gulf to drilling, the administration would have to ask Congress to lift the drilling moratorium.

Florida has long banned drilling in its state-controlled waters — those immediately off its shores, before federal jurisdiction takes over farther out — because of fears that a spill would damage its beaches, the state's biggest tourism draw. But even state politicians, including Govenor Charlie Crist, were considering opening those waters to drilling before the spill.

Today, Crist called the decision "wonderful news"

"That's news that will be very favourably received by the tourist industry throughout the state, but also by the people," Crist said.

He also said he's not surprised that the BP spill would make the administration take another look at its management plan, considering it was one of the country's largest environmental disasters.

"If that's not a wake-up call, I don't know what would be," Crist said. "If that doesn't have an impact on your thinking, you must not be thinking."