Politicians Reconsider Drilling Off Florida Coast

For years, oil production has been largely banned in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. In large part, that's because of concerns in Florida that a major spill could devastate the state's most important industry: tourism.

For many people who live in the area around Tampa Bay, an oil spill 16 years ago is still a vivid memory. In August 1993, 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil were dumped into the water just outside the bay. A thick oil slick covered the area, fouling nearly 15 miles of some of Florida's best beaches.

"We had to remove sand; we had oil on the beaches for several months," recalls D.T. Minich, the head of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We had several thousand sea turtle hatchlings die. It was a disaster ... and we don't want that to happen again."

Tourism Trauma

That episode traumatized many Floridians. And, with tourism as the Sunshine State's No. 1 industry, anything seen as a danger to Florida's beaches has also long been seen as a danger to the state's economy.

But the oil industry is making a renewed push in Washington and Tallahassee to expand drilling off the Florida coast, and some elected officials now appear willing to reconsider offshore drilling after years of opposition.

Past Florida Govs. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and Jeb Bush, a Republican, both adamantly opposed offshore drilling. Until recently, so did the current governor, Republican Charlie Crist.

Crist now believes drilling for oil off Florida's coast could be acceptable if "it's far enough, safe enough and clean enough." In an interview with WTSP-TV in Tampa, he said, "We've got to review exactly what the policy is and make sure it can provide energy diversification. But at the same time, we've got to protect our beautiful beaches."

Crist was referring to an amendment recently approved by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and now headed to the floor of the full Senate. It would allow oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, 45 miles off Florida's west coast and just 10 miles off beaches in the state's panhandle.

Military Presence In The Gulf

It's an amendment that outrages Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). "We're simply not going to let the oil boys have their way and sacrifice national security," he says.

In the eastern Gulf of Mexico, there's a large military testing and training area that has long been off-limits to oil and gas drilling. To protect that area, and Florida's beaches, members of Congress struck a compromise in 2006. It opened new sections of the gulf to drilling, but kept in place a ban on drilling in the eastern area, near Florida.

That compromise is now apparently out the window. Nelson is fighting to remove the offshore drilling amendment from the bill. If it comes to a floor vote, he's threatened a filibuster.

He's also sent a letter to Senate and House leaders signed by 24 of the 27 members of the state's congressional delegation, asking them to protect the military testing and training areas in the gulf.

Florida's panhandle, Nelson says, depends on two things: tourism and the U.S. military bases. "Those bases are located there," he says, "because of the testing and training range over the Gulf of Mexico."

High-Tech Drilling

But oil industry officials say new technology would allow them to drill for oil and gas in a way that would not interfere with military training missions and that would protect Florida's beaches.

It's a case they've been making in Washington and in Tallahassee, where the state Legislature last month came close to passing a bill that would allow drilling off Florida's coast.

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, says there are some areas in the eastern gulf where there are large known oil and gas deposits. Top on the oil industry's list is the Destin Dome, an area 25 miles south of Pensacola that is believed to contain 2.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

"That's enough natural gas to provide the electricity — cleaner burning, lower carbon-footprint natural gas — for a city the size of Tallahassee ... for more than 140 years," Mica says.

Along with new technology, oil and gas lobbyists are also, at least at the state level, talking up the lure of revenue sharing. If Congress consents, industry lobbyists say Florida could see tens of millions of dollars of revenue each year from offshore drilling.

In a time of declining budgets, that's another reason some Florida politicians now seem inclined to take another look at offshore drilling.

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