PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) _ In a concession to Gov. Jeb Bush and environmentalists nationwide, the Bush administration revealed a dramatically scaled-back plan to open about 1.5 million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration.
The area, known as Lease Sale 181, originally covered 5.9 million acres and came as close as 17 miles to Pensacola in Florida's Panhandle. But three-fourths of the plan were cut _ mainly by eliminating drilling east of the Florida-Alabama state line _ after opposition from the president's brother and environmentalists nationwide.
Speaking from his parents' summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Jeb Bush said the compromise ``reflects significant progress in Florida's fight to protect our coastline.''
``I really call this a win for the people of Florida,'' the governor said. ``There's not going to be any drilling from a new lease sale off of Florida, and any lease sale off Alabama will be 100 miles off their borders as well.''
The plan to lease 1.47 million acres along the Outer Continental Shelf _ at least 100 miles from the shorelines of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi _ would be the first new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in more than a decade, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Monday.
A final decision on the sale will be made in October. If approved, an auction for the leases would take place in December, Norton said. The auction is expected to raise $136 million.
Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the anti-drilling Florida Public Interest Group, called the plan a ``victory of historic proportions.''
But other environmentalists complained the smaller lease sale still could damage Florida's beaches.
``More rigs mean more pipelines and tankers, and thus a higher risk to Florida and Alabama's coastal economies and fisheries,'' said Frank Jackalone, the Sierra Club's Florida staff director.
Some Democrats also were critical of the new plan.
``It's obvious what the Bush administration is doing,'' said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. ``They're listening to the oil industry that supports their drilling plan and not listening to the millions of Floridians who oppose it.''
The House, with Florida Reps. Jim Davis, a Democrat, and Joe Scarborough, a Republican, leading the effort, voted last week to block the sale as part of an appropriations bill for the Interior Department. The Senate has not acted on the legislation. It could be September before any ban could become law.
Alabama's Democratic governor and top Republicans welcomed Bush's oil and gas exploration plan.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., called the compromise ``a step in the right direction.''
Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman has said he would support a ``balanced and reasonable'' plan that protects the sensitive offshore environment and his position had not changed Monday, a spokesman said.
Oil and gas drilling has been conducted for years in waters off the Alabama coast, with the state reaping royalties on production in state waters reaching three miles out. State conservation officials said Monday that 43 wells are currently producing in state waters.
Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., chairman of the energy and water subcommittee, said he too supports the Bush plan and is angered by the House vote, taken while he was in Alabama for a visit by the president.
In response, Callahan has threatened to block a 443-mile pipeline that is to route natural gas across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida.
Oil and gas rigs now dot the western and central waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but no federal lease has been offered in the eastern gulf since 1988.
Officials estimate the new, reduced lease area contains at least 185 million barrels of oil and 1.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas _ enough oil to run a million families' cars for six years and enough natural gas to heat the homes of a million families for 15 years.