America's thirst for energy and high fuel prices after hurricanes Katrina and Rita have rekindled the fight over oil and gas drilling off Florida, where clean beaches are the bedrock of a $57 billion-a-year tourism industry.
Environmentalists say they are girding for battle as pump prices of $3 a gallon soften longstanding support for bans on offshore drilling, once sacred to Florida politicians and the state's 17 million people.
With Washington pressing for new domestic oil and gas sources to ease U.S. dependence on foreign energy, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, long sought by oil companies
, has risen to the top of the national agenda again.
Florida politicians who once spoke with one outraged voice at any attempt to bring oil rigs within several hundred miles of the coast are now quietly negotiating a no-drilling buffer zone of 125 miles (200 km) or more around Florida to replace drilling moratoriums that expire in 2007 and 2012.
"Allowing any drilling off the coast poses a serious threat to our way of life and our economy," said Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "We would like to see our policy-makers fighting to oppose any drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico."
That and other environmental groups are looking at reviving a "Save Our Shores" campaign that fought offshore drilling in past decades.
THE HURRICANE "EXCUSE"
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which disrupted production in the Gulf and pushed pump prices to levels Americans had never seen, have been used by oil companies to push their agenda, said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.
"We think the motive behind this is greedy oil companies and their desire for more profits," he said. "The pro-drilling interests ... used Katrina and Rita as an excuse."
Tropical Storm Wilma, meanwhile, turned into a hurricane on Tuesday, threatening Florida's eastern Gulf Coast.
Both of Florida's U.S. senators, Nelson, a Democrat, and Mel Martinez, a Republican, oppose opening the eastern Gulf.
But lawmakers and environmentalists say negotiations on a House energy bill fashioned by California Republican Richard Pombo could result in a pact to allow expanded drilling in exchange for a "permanent" buffer of 125 miles (200 km).
Frank Jackalone, a Sierra Club representative, said any deal that allows drilling as close as 100 or 150 miles (160 or 240 km) to Florida will have oil companies "popping champagne corks."
"It will be a moving line. Once the industry gets a 125- mile (200-km) limit, they will find a way to push it further," he said.
A key player in the fight is Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the U.S. president's younger brother, who is in his second term and cannot run again. In 2001 he fought successfully, using his clout at the White House, against attempts to ease restrictions on eastern Gulf drilling.
In a recent statement, Bush's office said the governor "remains committed to providing at least 100 miles (160 km) of lasting protection." But environmentalists say Bush once favored a buffer of at least 200 miles (320 km).
"It's definitely a change in position in our minds," said Ferrulo.
John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, which favors eastern Gulf drilling, said Jeb Bush's stance marked a shift in the political winds.
"I think the Bush announcement has really changed the landscape there, specifically because now that gives cover, frankly, to people who think they need cover," he said recently.
NAM cites studies that indicate the Outer Continental Shelf, of which offshore Florida is a part, has 635 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 100 billion barrels of oil.
Mario Diaz-Balart, who favors "as large a buffer as we can get," says the negotiation over a 125-mile buffer (200-km) is just political reality.
"The moratorium does go away. Pretending it doesn't is gambling with the future of Florida," he said.