MIAMI, March 7 (UPI) -- Environmentalists said Thursday a proposal for swapping oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere could work if they are passed by Congress. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., proposed the swaps to protect the Florida Coast from drilling.
"It can certainly work. I think there are a number of oil and gas companies starting to realize that those leases are more of a liability than an investment," said Mark Ferrullo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, one of the biggest opponents to offshore drilling.
He said the oil companies might jump at any chance to recoup any of the costs because the leases have been dormant for so long in the face of bitter opposition in Florida.
Many of the leases are under a drilling ban imposed by the state.
One of the exceptions, however, could be the natural gas-rich Destin Dome 25 miles off the Florida Panhandle. The geological formation is considered the toehold to the most lucrative deposit of oil or gas yet to open up.
"It's within one court decision of putting a nail in the coffin or laying the coast wide open to drilling," Ferrullo said.
But he said his group still would prefer a proposal that doesn't encourage drilling elsewhere.
Under the Graham-Nelson plan, companies would trade their current leases in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for future leases in the central and western Gulf where drilling has been under way for years with the blessing of the public and government officials. It would include 110 leases off the Florida coast, including the Destin Dome.
"This would be a voluntary program," said Paul Anderson, a Graham staff member. "This would give them a chance to move to another productive site and go into production sooner rather than later."
The proposal could be attached next week to the energy bill undergoing debate in the Senate. A similar bill involving leases off California already has been attached by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
The plan does not include Lease Sale 181, an auction of 95 tracts off Alabama sold for $340 million in December.