The Senate last week moved toward passage of legislation designed to reduce record-high energy prices by allowing oil and gas drilling in a section of the eastern Gulf of Mexico long coveted by offshore producers. The Republican-led Senate voted 86 to 12 to bring a bill to the floor that would authorize drilling in 8.3 million acres off the western coast of Florida, an area estimated to contain 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cu ft of natural gas. A final vote on the measure is expected early this week. Chemical manufacturers are particularly concerned about the price of natural gas, which they use in large amounts to power plants and as a key raw material. The price of natural gas in the U.S. has more than tripled since 2000. Jack N. Gerard, American Chemistry Council president, commends the action, saying, "The country can no longer afford the consequences of antiquated policies that have led to staggering energy costs for everyone." If the Senate passes the bill as expected, it will have to be reconciled with a far-more-sweeping drilling proposal approved by the House.