RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
President Bush is pushing Congress to lift the 27-year ban on offshore oil drilling along much of the nation's coastline, and it's an idea that appears to be gaining ground. NPR's congressional correspondent, Debbie Elliott, takes us to the dividing line on the Gulf Coast, where residents in Alabama and some other states have lived with offshore production for decades, and then to Florida. And its politicians have long opposed drilling, but that's starting to change.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: If you look at a government map of oil and gas activity in the Gulf of Mexico, the western parts are mostly shaded in, reflecting the 4,000 platforms pumping oil and natural gas from below the ocean floor, off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But cross from Alabama waters into the eastern Gulf, off Florida's coast, and you won't see any rigs on the map or on the horizon.
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ELLIOTT: Enid Sisskin of Gulf Breeze, Florida, would like to keep it that way.
ENID SISSKIN: We're sitting out here at the beach, looking at the sand, and it's so white, it's blinding. The water is so emerald green, it's just absolutely beautiful. And this is what drives a lot of the economy in this area. We're not willing to sacrifice our economy for what is potentially a very small amount of oil or gas in comparison to the world supply.
ELLIOTT: Republican Jeff Miller is the congressman here in northwest Florida. He says the days of shielding Florida's waters from drilling may be over.
JEFF MILLER: Well, interestingly enough, Florida's always had the political ability to go in because their citizens have said we don't want it. That is changing.
ELLIOTT: Miller opposed offshore drilling when he was first elected to Congress in 2001, but now he favors lifting the ban, as long as drilling doesn't interfere with military training exercises in the region.
MILLER: I think when the public begins to change their tune, then their elected leaders need to be paying attention to that as well. The breaking point appeared to be somewhere around $4-a-gallon gas. At $3, people didn't like paying it, but they seemed relatively resolved that that was a number that they could live with. At $4, and now diesel for my pickup truck was $4.74 last weekend, and it's not going down anytime soon.
ELLIOTT: The Minerals Management Service estimates that to be some 3.6 billion barrels of oil. That's roughly as much oil as the U.S. consumes in six months. There could be more natural gas. Still, some prominent business groups don't think drilling is worth it.
SANDY JOHNSTON: We have everything to lose and nothing to gain - nothing.
ELLIOTT: Sandy Johnston is executive director of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce.
JOHNSTON: That would just be our worst nightmare. We have people coming from all over the world to see this. Why even take a chance?
ELLIOTT: We're sitting here on the front porch of your visitor information center, and we're watching the traffic come in. People have to pay for gas to drive to get here. Do you not think that, at some point, the trade-off is worth it when people can no longer afford to come here?
JOHNSTON: No, I don't think so. Drilling out there in that Gulf right now, today, is not going to change the price of gas tomorrow or next week or next month or next year. It's just going to destroy a beautiful location.
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ELLIOTT: I'm taking a ferry across Mobile Bay to Dolphin Island, Alabama, and I can look around here and see the impact of the oil and gas industry. As I look out on the water toward where the bay empties into the Gulf of Mexico and then back up toward the city of Mobile, I can count 10 or 12 natural gas rigs on the water here.
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ELLIOTT: Dolphin Island is south of Mobile. I come here to meet Francis Coleman, the editorial page editor of the Mobile Press Register. As we sit at a beachfront picnic pavilion, her description of the scene isn't too different from what I heard back in Pensacola, with one exception.
FRANCIS COLEMAN: We are looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, and it's a summer morning. The sand here, the beaches are gorgeous, and there are rigs off in the distance. These are natural gas rigs. These are not oil rigs. I don't hear them. At night, you can see some of the lights, but other than that, they're just kind of interesting little blips on the horizon. It's just part of this area. It's part of what we see when we go to the beach.
ELLIOTT: The industry is such a mainstay here that the elevators at the Mobile Chamber of Commerce are decorated with pictures of offshore platforms. The chamber's Steve Russell says gas is piped to local plants on shore and readied for the market.
STEVE RUSSELL: The natural gas then, at that point, is distributed as far north as New York and New Jersey and also to Florida.
ELLIOTT: Back on Dolphin Island, Francis Coleman says it's time for Florida and other coastal states to ante up.
COLEMAN: Isn't it ironic to hear everybody all over the country complaining about the cost of gasoline and bemoaning the fact that oh, my gosh, demand is up, futures are - you know, speculation is up, and here we are on the Gulf Coast, and we know we're doing our part. And there they are on their coast, and they're not doing their part.
ELLIOTT: So when she hears her cross-border neighbors whining about the price at the pump, her response? Well, bless their hearts. Debbie Elliott, Orange Beach, Alabama.
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