On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (“Senate Energy Committee”) approved Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-ND) amendment to increase oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico by a vote of 13-10. The amendment, which would modify the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (“Gulf of Mexico Energy Act”), adds another controversial issue to what will eventually become the Senate’s version of a comprehensive energy and climate change bill.

In 2006, the Gulf of Mexico Energy Act represented a compromise that allowed oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico but provided Florida with a buffer zone where no drilling is allowed. The buffer zone prevents drilling anywhere from 125-235 miles of Florida’s shore until mid-2022, except for in the panhandle region where the buffer zone is 100 miles. Under Sen. Dorgan’s amendment, some leasing would be allowed within 45 miles of Florida’s shores. Leasing may be even closer to the shore for the gas-rich area known as the Destin Dome, located approximately 25 miles south of Pensacola, Florida.

While proponents of Sen. Dorgan’s amendment believe it will eventually increase the support of a comprehensive energy bill, others disagree. Some members of the Senate Energy Committee who voted against Sen. Dorgan’s plan believe that it weakens the goal to promote renewable resources of energy and may eventually cause the bill to fail on the Senate floor.

The expanded leasing in the Gulf of Mexico also triggers the issue of revenue sharing. An earlier, separate amendment proposed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to provide revenue sharing for coastal states with oil and gas leasing off their shores was defeated. As a result, some Senators decided to vote against Sen. Dorgan’s amendment because they did not agree with its current revenue-sharing structure.

Sen. Dorgan advocated for increased oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year when he released his proposed National Energy Security Act of 2009 (see April 3, 2009 edition of the WER). Moving forward, Sen. Dorgan’s amendment will be rolled into a comprehensive energy and climate change bill to be introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. While Sen. Bingaman initially hoped that the Senate Energy Committee would complete all of its mark-ups on the energy bill by Thursday, some remaining amendments will be addressed next week.