The U.S. Minerals Management Service’s March 19 auction of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico totaled $3.67 billion, shattering 1983’s record $3.4 billion and October 2007’s $2.9 billion — then the second largest. For the first time ever, a portion of the federal lease sale in the eastern region and revenues generated from drilling will be returned to Louisiana and other producing states.

The MMS’ Gulf of Mexico Region collected 1,057 bids from 78 companies on 615 tracts offered in Central Lease Sale 206, which is off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and accounted for the bulk of the lease sale. Another 58 bids were received from five companies on 36 tracts an area about 125 miles from the Florida Panhandle. Known as Eastern Lease Sale 224 and totaling $64 million, this marks the first time bids have been taken in the eastern Gulf region.

In 2006, Congress opened up 8.3 million acres of additional territory in that region, an area estimated to have the capacity for producing 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas­ — enough to heat 6 million homes for 15 years.

Most notable about Eastern Sale 224, however, is its impact on the state coffers in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, which will receive 37.5 percent of the revenues generated from all newly leased acreage in the eastern region. The history-making revenue sharing provision was mandated by the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006, giving the states royalties from production in federal waters off their coastlines. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu co-authored the legislation, earmarking the estimated $13 billion in revenues over the next three decades for coastal restoration and hurricane recovery.

“Today the federal government finally begins fulfilling a promise President Truman offered Louisiana almost 60 years ago,” Landrieu says. “Since I came to the Senate in 1997, it has been my No. 1 priority to get Louisiana its fair share of offshore oil and gas revenues and to apply it to shoring up our natural hurricane protection.”

Two years ago Landrieu built a bipartisan coalition with the Republican chairman on the Energy and Natural Resources committee, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, passing the Domenici-Landrieu Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act into law. It provides Louisiana and the three other Gulf Coast states with the same share of revenues Truman offered six decades ago, an offer Louisiana rejected — holding out for 100 percent of the revenues.

“Today in the Superdome [where the lease sale was held], the first proceeds of more than half a century of effort came to fruition,” Landrieu says. “Over time, this law means billions for Louisiana — every penny of which will be directed to coastal restoration and hurricane protection, which the law directs and our state constitution now confirms. Today we closed Truman’s chapter of our history and opened a new one — one in which Louisiana has its own long sought-after source of independent revenue to secure our future.”

The four Gulf producing states will see immediate benefits from leases awarded in Sale 224, sharing both in the bonus bids and rents and any royalties collected down the road. Revenue generated from Sale 224 collected by MMS in fiscal year 2008 will be disbursed to the eligible states beginning in fiscal year 2009. Louisiana’s share from just the March 19 lease sale will total about $9 million this year alone, according to Landrieu.

“The ripple effect of today’s lease sale will be felt throughout the Gulf Coast,” says Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President Chris John. “The economic benefits are deep, and everyone in Louisiana will feel them, from service companies to caterers to the ‘mom and pop’ small businesses.”

BLUE AGAVE OPENS ON PINHOOK

After working as general manager for Picante for the past 13 years and at Tampico before that, Roberto Cervantes has struck out on his own, opening Blue Agave Mexican Restaurant in the shopping center at the corner of Pinhook and Southpark roads.

The Mexico City native says he’s learned the ropes and was ready to launch his own concept. “I was tired of making money for someone else,” notes Cervantes, who has lived in Lafayette for the past two decades. The 82-seat restaurant opened March 13, serving specialty dishes like Milaneza Rellena, a breaded, fried chicken breast stuffed with ham, cheese and a Spanish sauce topped with chipotle sauce and served with Mexican rice, sour cream and salad; and Tabasco Style Tilapia, a filet stuffed with seafood and baked with herbs, wine sauce and cheese. The latter is served with Agave rice and shrimp tortilla soup.

Try the Blue Agave (the cactus-looking plant from which tequila is made) margarita or top shelf margarita, the restaurant’s special blend of Jose Cuervo Especial Gold Premium Tequila, Grand Marnier, and Cointreau, served hand shaken, on the rocks or frozen.

House margaritas are $3, domestics $1.75 and well drinks $2.75 during Monday through Friday Happy Hour, which runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

COX RATIONING HD BOXES

Baton Rouge’s online news service Daily Report recently published a story about Cox Communications limiting the number of high-definition cable boxes it leases to each household because of a temporary shortage in supply. And Lafayette resident Matthew Schott says the problem is not exclusive to the capital city.

He’s been waiting for a second box since early January, when he bought a new flat panel HD TV. Schott says Cox initially told his wife the company would have more boxes in two weeks and a manager later explained that the demand for boxes after Christmas had outstripped the supply. “The story’s always been the same, two weeks, until the last time we called, which was about a week ago, they said they have no idea when they’d be getting more,” Schott says. “My picture is nothing near the quality of the picture in the store. I’m inconvenienced, and I just can’t seem to get any answers. Aren’t they losing money?”

The problem appears to be with Motorola, which manufactures the HD boxes and the combo digital video recorder/HD boxes. The manufacturer has not been able to keep up with the surge in households with HD sets, according to Cox spokeswoman Ann Ruble, who says the rationing has been in effect off and on for much of the past year. “The case is the same across our entire region. It is actually a national issue with all of the cable operators. As we receive more boxes, we will distribute them proportionally throughout our entire service area [13 parishes] to meet customer demand,” she says.

HD customers make up about 23 percent of Cox’s customer base here, but Ruble does not know how many people want additional boxes. “I don’t have a number of people waiting. Boxes are being turned out as fast as the manufacturers can make them.”

AT&T UPGRADING LOCAL WIRELESS SERVICE

AT&T says it will add 76 new cell sites throughout Louisiana, at a cost of nearly $104 million, before the end of 2008. The world’s largest telecommunications company will also roll out higher speed networks in Lafayette, Shreveport and Lake Charles. The 3G wireless broadband network has already been in place in Baton Rouge and New Orleans since 2006.

AT&T Louisiana spokeswoman Sue Sperry says Lafayette is also in line to get the 14th Experience Store in the nation, “a new interactive retail concept” that will open April 4. The only other such store between Houston and Atlanta was recently opened in Baton Rouge.

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