Senate panel clears drilling expansion off Florida coast

The specter of new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico loomed a little larger yesterday, as the Senate Energy Committee approved a bill to open millions of acres about 100 miles off the Florida coast to oil and gas exploration. Now, please get out your scorecards and sharpen your No. 2 pencils: Florida Sens. Mel Martinez (R) and Bill Nelson (D) oppose the bill because they fear drilling could put Florida’s tourist-friendly beaches at risk. Their allies include California and New Jersey lawmakers. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) opposes the bill because she says it doesn’t give Gulf Coast states enough of the estimated $12 billion in royalty payments that the oil and gas leases could generate. Supporters include lawmakers eager to let coastal states opt out of the federal moratorium on offshore drilling and a coalition of industries and farm states that want cheaper, more abundant gas supplies to make fertilizer and chemicals. Still with us? It all adds up to one heckuva fight brewing as the bill moves to the Senate floor.