WASHINGTON -- With his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, looking on, President Bush sealed a deal Wednesday to prevent further oil and gas drilling off the white sand beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast and in the cypress swamps near the Everglades.
The unexpected announcement would require the federal government to repurchase $235 million worth of oil and gas leasing rights in the Destin Dome area, about 25 miles south of Pensacola, and in three wildlife areas including Big Cypress National Preserve.
Jeb Bush acknowledged that the Oval Office announcement would boost his re-election campaign in Florida, the swing state in the 2000 presidential election and a tourism mecca where polls show 75 percent oppose offshore drilling.
Afterward, the clearly buoyed governor spoke to Florida reporters on a car phone and was not at all flustered by a suggestion that his brother George W. Bush was only mining environmental votes in Florida and oil contributions in Alaska, where the president supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"I disagree with that, but you know what?" Jeb Bush said. "I don't really care. How about that? I'm the governor of Florida and I am incredibly proud that this historic day has come."
President Bush said Wednesday's action "once again demonstrates that my administration will take seriously the views of local communities. The federal government should continue to work closely with states and local communities in solving issues that affect energy security, the economy and the environment."
Jeb Bush and Interior Secretary Gale Norton told reporters after a brief meeting with the president that the actions will help preserve the Florida Panhandle's pristine coastline.
"It just didn't seem right that 25 miles off that coast there would be the possibility of drilling, and today that possibility no longer exists," Bush said.
The governor called the agreement to also repurchase oil drilling rights near the Everglades "a win-win for our state as well."
Wednesday's decision drew rare praise for the president from environmentalists and criticism from his usual allies in the energy industry.
The reaction also underscored the difficulty the administration and Congress have experienced in developing a national energy policy in the wake of California's power crisis last year.
"National energy supply has certainly been handed a setback today," said R. Skip Horvath, president of the Natural Gas Supply Association. He noted that the now-abandoned offshore drilling tract in Florida potentially contained large natural gas reserves -- up to 2.6 trillion cubic feet (the United States consumes almost 22 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually).
"We cannot continue to chisel away at America's own resources and expect to continue to be self-sufficient in filling future demand," Horvath said.
Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who has supported the president's efforts to open the Arctic refuge to drilling, said, "Once again politics is deciding energy policy. ... Surely the administration that supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should find a way to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, where we have been successfully drilling for the past 60 years."
Florida lawmakers and environmentalists quickly hailed the agreements -- particularly the one affecting Destin Dome, where the state and a consortium of oil companies have been locked in a lengthy dispute over offshore drilling.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said the agreements were "a welcome step for keeping both Florida's economy and environment healthy." But Graham noted that "there are 99 other leases in the Eastern Gulf that remain a threat. This is a step in the right direction, but today's developments should be a starting point to permanently end future drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., echoed Graham's concerns about the remaining leases and questioned the $115 million cost of the Destin Dome settlement.
Graham and Nelson had introduced a bill that would allocate $90 million to repurchase all outstanding leases in the Eastern Gulf.
President Bush's administration has been pushing to expand oil and gas exploration nationwide, but Wednesday's action led environmentalists to urge him to apply his new Florida position in other parts of the country.
The Natural Resources Defense Council urged the president to follow a similar course in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, off the California coast, and in areas of the West.
"The administration should abandon its `drain America first' energy strategy favored by industry for a sensible policy emphasizing conservation and clean energy sources that will benefit all Americans," said Lisa Speer, NRDC senior policy analyst.
But Norton said there were significant differences between the situations in Alaska and Florida, including the presence of a large number of endangered species in Florida and strong local support for the pipeline project in Alaska. And the Arctic refuge's estimated oil reserves are more than 100 times larger than the reserves in the Everglades. Last year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had floated a proposal to expand drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but she agreed to a moratorium within 100 miles of the Florida coast after Gov. Bush objected.