updated 3/7/2006 12:57:11 PM ET 2006-03-07T17:57:11

Twenty-two of Florida's 25 U.S. House members sent a pair of letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton on Monday opposing the agency's plan to open a large area in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and natural gas drilling about 100 miles south of the Panhandle.

A Florida delegation letter signed by 21 representatives expressed strong opposition to the proposal because it would have "severe implications on Florida's economy and environment" by increasing the risk of pollution to the state's beaches.

"Our economy is built upon the thousands of jobs that are created by visitors who vacation on our beautiful beaches," the Floridians wrote. "Environmental damage resulting from an oil spill or any other mishap associated with offshore drilling could be devastating to our economy."

Another Florida congressman, Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, sent a separate letter opposing the proposal, which would most affect his Panhandle district. Miller wrote that drilling also could harm military training and weapons testing in and over the gulf by Air Force and Navy bases in the Panhandle.

Miller said in the letter and an interview that the Minerals Management Service's plan would harm efforts by some Florida lawmakers, including himself, to reach a compromise for limited offshore drilling in exchange for long-term protection.

"They are continuing to try to do an end around on the Florida delegation," Miller said. "I am not pleased."

He said he had warned that something like this might happen when much of the delegation last year rejected compromise proposals designed to keep drilling 125 or 150 miles offshore.

"MMS did this without input from the state of Florida or its residents," Miller wrote to Norton. "To add insult to injury, I've just learned that MMS is not even planning to hold meetings to accept public comment in the state of Florida."

The agency, a part of Norton's department, on Monday began a series of 13 public meetings on its next five-year Outer Continental Shelf leasing program including Area 181, but none will be held in Florida. Most of the meetings are being set for Alaska, where some are proposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the rest in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Virginia.

Florida's two senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, also oppose the plan and have introduced legislation aimed at scaling it back.

The proposal unveiled last month calls for leasing two-thirds of Area 181 south of the Panhandle. Area 181 covers 5.9 million acres that are mostly 100 to 175 miles offshore between Mobile, Ala., and Destin, and about 200 miles west of Tampa Bay. A narrow strip, known as the "stovepipe," extends to within 16 miles of Pensacola's beaches but is not included in the lease plan.

MMS Director Johnnie Burton said then in a statement that offshore sources of oil and natural gas should be fully considered due to sharp increases in energy prices affecting American families and businesses.

President Bush in 2001 assured Florida officials, including his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, that Area 181 would be protected at least through this year.

The proposal for the 2007-2012 leasing period would switch 2 million acres from the eastern to central gulf planning areas. That change would remove Area 181 from Florida's offshore boundaries and into those of Louisiana and Alabama, two pro-drilling states.

"This administration is attempting to cut Floridians out of the discussion about drilling off of our coasts," Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said in a statement. "Florida's Congressional Delegation will not simply roll over and let them annex the future of our pristine coastline to neighboring states — particularly states whose beaches are marred by tar balls."

The only Florida House members who did not sign, besides Miller, are Reps. John Mica, R- Winter Park; Dave Weldon, R-Melbourne, and Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo. Mica has a history of supporting offshore drilling and Weldon's office offered no immediate comment.

Feeney spokeswoman Pepper Pennington said he remains committed to overall protection of Florida's coastline, not just the gulf.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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