The Department of the Interior proposed leasing drilling rights in waters south of the Florida Panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico in a new five-year drilling plan that also would open waters off Virginia. The plan will cover the years 2007 to 2012. If given final approval next spring after a public comment period, the plan would be more restrictive than some drilling advocates want but not restrictive enough for some Florida lawmakers. The proposal calls for leasing in a large part of a disputed tract known as Lease Sale Area 181. It follows new offshore boundaries between states that the department drew in January, which prompted distress among Florida lawmakers. The January map showed a boundary that does not follow the north-south landline between Alabama
and Florida that many people assume when discussing which waters are off Florida as opposed to off Alabama or Louisiana. Instead, the new line slants southeast from the coast, moving waters south of the Panhandle into waters considered off Louisiana. The new plan calls for drilling in that wedge beginning 100 miles from shore. The area appears to split the difference between two recently introduced legislative proposals. The plan comes a day after Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced legislation that would require leasing in the bulk of Area 181 up to 100 miles of shore. That bill calls for opening much more area than the proposed five-year plan, judging from maps. Florida Sens
. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Mel Martinez, a Republican, introduced their own bill in anticipation of Domenici’s proposal. Their plan also would allow some drilling in these disputed waters, but only in a small quadrant of the area Domenici's bill would open up. Most federal waters outside the western and central Gulf of Mexico
are off limits to drilling under presidential and congressional bans, but drilling bans don't cover the 5.9-million acre Area 181 that straddles waters off Florida and Alabama. The tract is thought to be rich in natural gas.