Rumsfeld: Gulf oil, gas exploration could disrupt military activities

Expanded production could impede missile flights, low-flying drone aircraft, weapons testing and training, Defense secretary says.

Supporters and opponents of expanding offshore energy production in the Gulf of Mexico are grappling over the significance of a letter sent this week by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicating that some Gulf production would be "incompatible" with military activities.

In a letter dated Wednesday to Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., Rumsfeld said areas in the Gulf east of the "Military Mission Line," which extends south from the Florida Panhandle and about 234 miles west of Tampa Bay, "are especially critical to DOD due to the number and diversity of military testing and training conducted there now, and those planned for the future."

In areas east of that line, "drilling structures and associated development would be incompatible with military activities, such as missile flights, low-flying drone aircraft, weapons testing, and training," Rumsfeld said.

Opponents of expanding offshore oil and natural gas production say the letter throws a wrench into the efforts by legislators trying to open that area to drilling. "We can't allow the oil companies to undermine our long-term national defense interests," said a statement from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has frequently argued that offshore drilling expansion would impede military activities.

But a spokesman for House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., who continues to pursue his plan to allow states to opt out of an offshore oil and natural gas production ban, said Rumsfeld's letter "is not a new position" and "is a confirmation that Chairman Pombo's legislation is fully protective of the DoD mission."

Under Pombo's plan, Florida officials would control the first 125 miles off the state's western coast and 100 miles off the remainder of the state's coastline, while the remaining area east of the Military Mission Line would be covered under an existing presidential ban until June 30, 2012. After that date, the president would be able to either lift or continue that ban. Everything outside of that area would be open to drilling.

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., is pursuing a separate plan that expands the ban on natural gas exploration from 20 to 200 miles off the U.S. coastline. But a Peterson spokesman said this would not necessarily allow production to occur there because of existing cooperation between the Defense and Interior departments regarding the impact of energy production on military activities.

"We're simply allowing [Interior] the opportunity to lease water out there," the spokesman said. "They would have the opportunity to be flexible with the Department of Defense." Opposition from moderates and some coastal lawmakers forced GOP leaders to remove Pombo's plan from the House budget reconciliation bill. The issue is not addressed in the Senate reconciliation bill or other legislation expected to move this year.

Peterson's plan was the subject of a Resources Committee hearing last month and he wants the committee to hold a markup this month or early next year, his spokesman said.