Gulf Drilling Plans Worry Many Floridians

The Interior Department says it intends to expand oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. As Russell Lewis of member station WGCU in Fort Myers reports, the plan has some Florida residents worried that oil rigs will encroach upon their shores, potentially hurting the state's tourism industry.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This week the Bush administration released a five-year plan that will allow oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, in an area currently off limits for drilling. The move has angered Florida leaders who worry about its impact on the state's $57 billion tourism industry.

We begin our coverage of this issue with a report from Russell Lewis of member station WGCU in Fort Myers.

RUSSELL LEWIS reporting:

Wintertime is a good time to be in Southwest Florida, and there's no better place than along the white sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The waves are quiet, the humidity low, and the skies blue and cloudless. Resident Jack Wert smiles broadly, as he sits on a bench on the Naples Pier, which juts a thousand feet into the emerald-green water of the Gulf.

Mr. JACK WERT (Executive Director, Greater Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Chamber of Commerce): You can really see why people consider it paradise here. And this time of year, when it's cold up north and the snow is flying, this is certainly a wonderful refuge from that kind of negative weather.

LEWIS: It's Jack Wert's job to sell this place as best he can. He's executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Chamber of Commerce. Tourism is Florida's biggest industry, both in terms of dollars and people it employs, and last year in Naples, more than 1.4 million people came to vacation, spending more than a billion dollars.

Mr. WERT: Anything that would threaten our beautiful beaches here, or any of the other things that we offer our visitors, it certainly would be catastrophic to our economy.

LEWIS: Wert worries about offshore drilling and is concerned about an accident drenching inky black oil over these pristine white sands. The Bush Administration plan would lease about two million acres of the Continental Shelf to oil and gas companies. They could drill no closer than 100 miles from the shore. The Interior Department's proposal is a five-year strategy to increase oil and natural gas production starting next year. Florida Governor Jeb Bush is very worried about it, according to his spokesman Russell Shweiss.

Mr. RUSSELL SHWEISS (Florida Governor's Spokesman): It also raises great concern that there would be no certainty past 2012. And it would probably be naive to think that if they're moving, drilling closer during this planning period, that they would not attempt to move drilling even closer during the next.

LEWIS: The battle isn't new. Florida politicians have fought for years to prevent drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. Florida's 25-member congressional delegation, made up of Democrats and Republicans, is almost universally against drilling close to shore. Members criticize the Bush plan, and another proposal introduced this week by New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici. House Republican Connie Mack, of Fort Myers, says drilling for oil is the wrong idea.

Representative CONNIE MACK (Republican, Florida): We should be using this time and this energy and this passion for finding alternative sources of energy. Until we have that mind-shift here in the Congress and in policy decisions, then I think we're just treading water.

LEWIS: It's what's underneath that water that interests the oil and gas industry so much. Experts say there are substantial reserves of natural gas and an unknown amount of oil.

David Mica is with the Florida Petroleum Council. He says they are looking for alternative sources of energy too. But that's a long-term solution.

Mr. DAVID MICA (Executive Director, Florida Petroleum Council): Twenty years ago, when I went to work with the industry, we were importing about 42 percent of our oil every day. And today we're importing more than 60 percent for the United States. And here in Florida, we use more than 25 million gallons of gasoline a day.

LEWIS: Florida's two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, extended an olive branch earlier this month. They proposed their own offshore drilling and exploration plan covering 700,000 acres. But it would also create a permanent 150-mile no-drill zone around the entire state.

For NPR News, I'm Russell Lewis in Fort Myers, Florida.

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