WASHINGTON – Discovery of a vast oil deposit deep under the Gulf of Mexico has put additional pressure on Congress as it considers legislation on whether to allow offshore drilling closer to the Florida coast.

The undersea oil field 270 miles southwest of New Orleans, which could expand U.S. reserves by as much as 50 percent, provides new arguments for both sides of a contentious debate over legislation to expand offshore drilling.

Proponents say the discovery shows the great potential for tapping the Outer Continental Shelf closer to shore to boost energy supplies.

Opponents contend it proves energy companies have plenty of tracts to explore without moving into more environmentally sensitive areas near Florida, California and other states dependent on clean beaches and tourism.

Opponents already are on the defensive because of a rising demand for supplies amid high fuel costs, though prices have eased lately. They fear the discovery will prompt Congress to allow exploration in areas where drilling now is banned.

“It gives us (drilling opponents) a steeper hill to climb, now that the news of the size and scope of this find has been all over the country,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. “This is welcome good news for energy independence and gives us new capacity. But I remain troubled by the prospect of putting more rigs in vulnerable areas along the main path of hurricanes.”

The discovery comes as Congress is grappling over conflicting offshore drilling bills, written to boost domestic supplies and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign sources of oil and natural gas.

Most Florida leaders are rallying around a Senate-passed bill that would open 8.3 million acres of the Gulf to energy production but keep rigs more than 125 miles from the state’s shores. Most drilling proponents prefer a House-passed version that would allow exploration as close as 50 miles from shore.

Proponents say expanding oil exploration could reveal there is much more than 3 billion to 15 billion barrels beneath the Gulf.

“This shows us the potential is there for America to not be so dependent on foreign sources,” said U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., a leading proponent of natural gas drilling.

Peterson has taunted Florida, whose members represent the biggest obstacle to his drilling plans, in the House debate. He once exhorted the White House to “get its head out of the Florida sands” rather than accommodate the state’s concerns.

“Florida has carved out a position that is actually thwarting America’s opportunity to become energy self-sufficient,” he said in an interview. “The OCS is a safe place to produce. It’s not a threat to Florida tourism or its beaches.”

Foley and many environmentalists remain unconvinced, pointing to other recent developments that show vulnerabilities in oil drilling and distribution.

These include leaks found in an Alaska pipeline and a federal report citing 124 spills from offshore rigs and pipelines in the Gulf last year caused by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Most of the 124 spills were minor, but all told, they spewed 741,384 gallons of toxic petroleum into Gulf waters.

“This new find will alleviate some of our dependence,” Foley said, “but at what cost and what risk?”

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