Federal government to buy up mineral rights in Florida with taxpayers' dollars

Deals to Block Drilling in Everglades, Gulf
Bush Promises $235 Million to Buy Out Mineral Rights in Fla. Areas

By Michael Grunwald and Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writers

Thursday, May 30, 2002; Page A01

President Bush announced two major deals yesterday to protect Florida's natural treasures from oil and gas drilling, pledging $235 million to buy out mineral rights in the cypress swamps of the Everglades and off the white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

The agreements mark a departure from the Bush administration's push to expand oil and gas exploration nationwide, but officials said each case had to be evaluated on its merits. The deals to protect some of the last refuges of the endangered Florida panther and Florida's Gulf Coast could also provide a political boost to his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who is up for reelection this fall. They may also burnish the president's environmental credentials in the state that decided the 2000 election.

"Florida is known worldwide for its beautiful coastal waters and the Everglades," the president said at an Oval Office ceremony. "Today, we are acting to preserve both."

The coastal deal -- $115 million to buy back oil and gas leases about 30 miles off the shores of Pensacola -- is complete. The Everglades deal -- $120 million worth of cash or future drilling credits to retire mineral rights in the Big Cypress National Preserve and other public lands -- must be approved by Congress.

Environmentalists praised both deals for protecting threatened resources -- especially the withered Everglades, which is the focus of a $7.8 billion restoration project supported by both Bush brothers.

"It's good public policy, and when there's a convergence of good politics and good public policy, I don't think we should be ashamed about it," said Gov. Bush, who may face former attorney general Janet Reno in November.

But several environmental activists said President Bush had been far less eager to block drilling in states where his brother isn't governor. Mary Munson, Florida director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said her group was "absolutely delighted" with the agreements. But she noted the contrast with the Bush administration's efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands for exploration.

"We hope this administration will treat other parks and refuges outside of Florida with equal respect and attention," said Munson, whose group recently gave the administration a D-plus for its stewardship of national parks.

National Environmental Trust President Philip Clapp described the deals as "a $235 million campaign contribution to the Re-Elect Jeb Bush Committee, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers."

On environmental issues, the Bush administration has showered attention on the Sunshine State. The president described the Everglades restoration project as the ultimate example of his "new environmentalism for the 21st century." He recruited Florida's parks director to run the National Park Service. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton backed the park service's plan to keep swamp buggies out of Big Cypress while abandoning its plan to ban snowmobiles at Yellowstone National Park. And after Big Cypress officials revealed in January that Interior was considering plans for drilling in the 729,000-acre preserve, Norton quickly announced that her department would try to buy out the Collier family's mineral rights there.

Administration officials said there were two main differences between drilling in Alaska and drilling in the Everglades. Alaska's governor and legislative leaders welcomed oil exploration, while Florida's leaders opposed it. And the Arctic refuge's estimated oil reserves are more than 100 times larger than those in Big Cypress.

"When it comes to energy development on federal lands, each case must be evaluated individually in cooperation with the people who live in the area," Norton said.

Yesterday's deal with the Colliers will retire 72 percent of the oil and gas rights in Big Cypress, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Interior officials believe it will preclude further development there. Those forested marshes near Everglades National Park are home to some of the last 80 Florida panthers on Earth, as well as endangered American crocodiles and red-cockaded woodpeckers, and activists said the idea of oil rigs there bordered on blasphemy.

"The notion that you would drill in the Everglades is insane," said Shannon Estenoz, Everglades coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund. "Closing the door on that insanity is a very good thing."

Last year, Norton floated a proposal -- developed in the Clinton administration -- to open 6 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas leasing. But after Gov. Bush objected, she scaled back the plan to forestall drilling within 100 miles of the Florida coast. The exception was the Destin Dome area off Pensacola, where Chevron, Conoco and Murphy Oil were in litigation over leases approved 16 years ago. Under yesterday's deal, the companies will relinquish seven of their nine leases and suspend the other two until at least 2012.

"This has been a 20-year war against the oil and gas industry to protect our coast," said Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "And while this doesn't represent the nail in the coffin, it's about as close as you can get to that."

But the Destin Dome is believed to contain more than 700 billion cubic feet of natural gas, generally considered a clean fuel, and a Chevron spokesman yesterday said the company was "very disappointed" it won't be able to tap it. "The development of the Destin Dome resource could have been accomplished with utmost sensitivity to the environment," he said.

The environmental organizations, especially the World Wildlife Fund, are actively involved in promoting the Wildlands Projects.  The Global Biodiversity Assessment, which is the 1,140 page document defining the manner in which the Biodiversity Treaty (which incorporates the Wildlands Project), is accomplished.  It decries nonsustainable items like grazing of livestock, fencing of pastures, modern farm production, logging, fossil fuels, etc.

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