WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bill establishing a permanent moratorium on oil and gas exploration in a wide swath of the Gulf of Mexico, including a massive military test range, passed the U.S. House on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Under current law, a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the affected part of the Gulf is set to expire June 30, 2022.
Wednesday's vote was applauded by Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents Northwest Florida in Congress. Gaetz has been a staunch advocate for the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range, a 120,000-square-mile section of the Gulf that supports a wide range of military training missions and is overseen by Eglin Air Force Base's 96th Test Wing.
“Florida’s precious coastline is a national treasure and a vital military asset," Gaetz, a co-sponsor of the Protecting and Securing Florida's Coastline Act of 2019, said in a statement issued after the vote on the bill, which passed 248-180.
Gaetz was one of only 22 Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, as 174 Republicans were opposed. Among the other Republicans voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Neal Dunn, whose district includes Tyndall Air Force Base.
The bill got 222 affirmative Democratic votes. Five Democrats and one Independent voted against it.
"Our military mission, environment, and property values cannot be subjected to the potentially disastrous repercussions caused by drilling in the Gulf of Mexico," Gaetz said in his statement. "It is incomprehensible that a drilling moratorium would not be imposed in an area where experimental missiles are tested and launched. I applaud the passage of today’s bill, which permanently extends the ban on drilling in key regions of the Gulf of Mexico including the Gulf Test Range, and I commit to further ensuring that no drilling occurs off Florida’s coast.”
In a speech on the House floor, Gaetz said there is no evidence that oil and gas drilling in the section of the Gulf covered by the bill is necessary for America's energy future.
"If drilling off of Florida is the only thing that's going to keep us from having high energy prices and a reliance on foreign energy, I don't know why that hasn't happened yet," Gaetz said. "Right now, we are not drilling off the coast of Florida, and we are energy dominant in the world."
Gaetz also noted the importance of the Gulf to Florida's tourism economy, but the bulk of his argument was focused on the military value of the Gulf Test Range and its upcoming role in testing a new generation of weapons — hypersonic missiles that can travel at five times the speed of sound.
"I cannot believe that I have to come here to actually make the argument that it is an incredibly stupid idea to launch experimental missiles over active oil rigs," Gaetz said in his speech.
"This military mission is what keeps us safe," Gaetz added. "If we do not continue to maintain that advantage ... we won't be able to protect our country."
In the Senate, another bill sponsored by Florida Republican Marco Rubio also addresses the moratorium on oil and gas exploration in parts of the Gulf, but would extend the moratorium only through June 30, 2027. No votes have been taken on Rubio's bill, which is in the Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.