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Bush plans to offer oil leases off Florida

Lease area cut to one-fourth its original size

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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will propose to offer new oil leases for offshore drilling in an area covering about 1.5 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, a senior administration official said Monday.

Interior Secretary Gail Norton intended to announce the sale later in the day, and it will be formalized Tuesday with a notice in the Federal Register, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The drilling would occur in an area formally known as Lease Sale 181. Even before he took office, President Bush's desire to open the area to drilling met stiff opposition from his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The sale area originally encompassed 6 million acres, with the tract coming as close as 17 miles to Pensacola in Florida's Panhandle.

The official said the area being offered for lease was reduced to one-fourth its original size in response to widespread opposition in Florida and from environmentalists.

"Every Florida beach will be at least 100 miles from any drilling site," the official said.

The new lease area would begin 285 miles west of Tampa and would be at least 138 miles from Panama City, Fla., the official said, explaining that everything in the original tract that is at least 100 miles from shore would remain in the sale.

Oil and gas rigs now dot the western and central waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but no federal lease has been offered in the eastern gulf since 1988. Officials estimate the new, reduced lease area contains at least 185 million barrels of oil and 1.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The House voted last week to block the sale as part of an appropriations bill for the Interior Department. The Senate, however, has not acted on the legislation, and it could be September before any ban could become law.