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Bush Deal Aids 'Glades, Brother Jeb

President Bush committed the federal government on Wednesday to pay $235 million to buy back oil, natural gas and mining development rights near Florida's Everglades and beaches, an environmental deal that his up-for-reelection brother acknowledged as a political boon.

"Florida is known worldwide for its beautiful coastal waters and the Everglades. Today we are acting to preserve both," the president said in a written statement.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, seeking a second term in November, escorted to the White House members of the Collier family who are to receive $120 million for their oil and gas drilling rights if Congress approves the agreement sealed with a presidential handshake in the Oval Office.

The second half of the deal, a $115-million settlement buying out nine oil and gas leases to preclude drilling in Gulf of Mexico areas closest to Pensacola, does not require legislation and will proceed without Congress, said Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Asked outside the White House if his re-election campaign stands to benefit politically in a state where polls show 75 percent of Floridians opposed to offshore drilling, Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother replied:

"I hope so. But more importantly, it is good public policy and when there's a convergence of good politics and good public policy, I don't think we should be ashamed about it."

Florida, decisive in the 2000 presidential campaign, is also critical to any re-election plans President Bush has for 2004.

Environmentalists cheered the White House action but challenged Mr. Bush to apply the similar protections to Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Rocky Mountain Front and other areas he wants to open to energy production.

Norton was asked why the administration supports drilling in Alaska but not in Florida, reports CBS News Correspondent Peter Maer.

"There are things that can be done in Alaska to ensure that production is taking place in an environmentally sensitive way that can not be done in Florida. For example, ice roads are not particularly successful in Florida," Norton said.

Gov. Bush also addressed the apparent discrepancy between the president's push to open ANWR in Alaska to oil drilling, a proposal embraced by House Republicans but rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate, at the same time he was bargaining to take substantial areas in Florida off the table for energy production.

"I find nothing ironic about it at all. Each one of these cases needs to be looked at in terms of the balance — to preserve the natural environment or the economic interests of a state," Jeb Bush said.

The Florida economy relies heavily on tourists who, in turn, count on Florida for clean beaches and "the pristine natural environment," the governor continued, using a description frequently applied to the Alaskan wilderness during the ANWR debate.

Jeb Bush said it's for others to determine "which side wins out" in Alaska. "I'm governor of Florida. You know, Alaska is a wonderful place but it's a little cold for me."

At the Natural Resources Defense Council, policy analyst Lisa Speer said Wednesday's deal was good environmental news but "a double standard" when weighed against the administration's interest in developing energy resources in Alaska and the Rocky Mountain Front. "We'd like to see the same protections applied in an equal and fair way," Speer said.

The proposed $120 million buy-out of the Collier family would nullify its substantial oil and gas rights in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress National Preserve, which is adjacent to Everglades National Park.

The $115 million payment settles a lawsuit by several petroleum companies accusing the federal government of throwing up regulatory hurdles to their development of oil and gas leases in Destin Dome, the large natural gas field in the Gulf of Mexico offshore from Pensacola. By buying back the development leases in question, the Bush administration is precluding oil and gas production in the area.

On two unexplored leases not covered by the Destin Dome buy-out, Jeb Bush said the state and federal government will essentially have "veto power" over future development.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, President Bush supported offshore drilling but promised to consult with governors and back those, like his brother, who seek bans off their state coastlines.