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WASHINGTON -- The 40-foot segments of a planned natural gas pipeline that recently began arriving at Port Manatee are a promising sign for Florida's electric power plants.
The question is how full or empty those promises may be.
The state's gas needs are expected to almost triple by 2020, but the new pipeline from Mobile, Ala., will cross Gulf of Mexico waters that the state of Florida is fighting to keep free of oil and gas platforms.
In Florida, entrenched public opinion against drilling in a 6-million acre area near the Alabama line often focuses on the threat of oil spills. Arguments for treating natural gas drilling differently than oil production are practically stifled. Meanwhile, Florida projects the state will depend on gas for 40 percent of its electricity by 2010 -- up from 17 percent now.
"I think most Floridians are infinitely more concerned about offshore oil drilling than they are about drilling for natural gas," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, a Bartow Republican who is among the few Florida lawmakers open to drilling in the eastern Gulf patch known as lease sale Area 181.
"If the pipeline is needed, it would seem to us the natural gas to fill the pipeline is needed as well," said Mark Rubin, the American Petroleum Institute's manager for exploration and production. "It's difficult for some of us to comprehend."
But Republican and Democratic opponents -- including both of Florida's senators and Gov. Jeb Bush -- don't distinguish between oil and gas drilling.
"The political reality is Floridians in general just do not like drilling off the Florida coast," said an aide to Democratic Sen. Bob Graham. "If you asked people off the street, I don't think they would know the difference."
Experts disagree about whether Florida could experience higher electricity prices by thwarting new gas wells in the eastern Gulf. Industry experts also are divided on the importance of dwindling output from existing Gulf wells to the west.
However, a report in December by the Florida Public Service Commission, which oversees utility development, noted that regional gas reserves have declined, and it warned:
"If sufficient quantities of natural gas are not available, prices may rise to prohibitively expensive levels, which may cause natural gas-fired generation to be more costly than other types of generation."
Most of Florida's lawmakers are at a stalemate with drilling advocates and President Bush's administration regarding production in Area 181, which was left out of a drilling ban east of Alabama. The federal government plans to sell drilling leases for Area 181 in December. Most of the lease area is more than 100 miles from Florida's shores.
Meanwhile, electricity producers are moving ahead with plans to make natural gas the dominant source of electric power in Florida. More than 70 gas-powered turbines were under construction or planned across the state from 1999 through 2007, an industry analyst said. Three new turbines in Polk County, for example, were approved last month.
Power producers nationwide favor gas-fired turbines instead of dirtier fuel like coal and oil in their expansion plans. Putnam, like some other lawmakers from Florida such as U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel, worry that Florida could lose its ability to shape the debate by refusing to discuss options.
"There's a growing momentum in Congress to address all potential sources of domestic energy production," Putnam said, including the entire eastern Gulf.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, supports gas drilling in all of Area 181 but opposes any oil drilling within 100 miles of Florida. He says the state's gas needs demand this distinction.
Opponents say that although the risk of an oil spill is reduced, gas-drilling platforms still pollute.
Furthermore, drilling platforms often discover both oil and gas. Putnam and Mica said they think new technology could solve that if given a chance, but opponents fear accidental oil discoveries could open the door for oil production.
"Oil drilling would be our worst concern," Florida Sierra Club director Frank Jackalone said, "but we don't believe the two issues are separable."
Because much of the state's gas comes from Gulf platforms off Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, some are concerned that increased demand could hurt Florida later without new wells nearby.
"The average citizen in the state of Florida is completely opposed to drilling in this state, and what happened in California is citizens have risen up and said, 'Not in my back yard.' It could happen to us," said Slade O'Brien, director of the Florida chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which supports President Bush's energy plan.
California's failure to build new power plants because of environmental restrictions has been blamed as a contributor to the state's power woes.
Geography also figures into Florida's energy needs. A national power grid allows states to bring in power from other areas. But Florida is a peninsula and can import electricity only from the north.
Additional gas sources already are being planned for Florida. One is a proposed depot in Tampa that would receive ships carrying liquefied natural gas from foreign sources. Several other depots are planned elsewhere, and two of the country's four existing depots are being reopened after lying dormant for years.
Gas industry executives said they are focused on lobbying Congress and the White House. Laurie Cramer, spokeswoman for the Natural Gas Supply Association, said they have given up on trying to change minds in Florida.
"It would take years of effort," she said.
PRESSURE TO DRILL
Current offshore oil or gas drilling status in the Gulf of Mexico. Area 181 is scheduled to be leased in December.