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The Gulf of Mexico off Florida's coast is largely off limits to oil drilling. That's because of concerns that a major spill could devastate Florida's most important industry: tourism.
But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the oil industry is now making a renewed push to expand drilling off the Florida coast.
GREG ALLEN: It was nearly 16 years ago, but for many who live in the area around Tampa Bay, it's a vivid memory.
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Unidentified Woman: In Tampa Bay, a freighter collided today with two barges, causing one to catch fire and the other to leak heavy fuel oil into the water.
ALLEN: It was August of 1993 when 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil were dumped into the water just outside Tampa Bay. A thick oil slick covered the area, fouling nearly 15 miles of some of Florida's best beaches.
Mr. D.T. MINICH (Executive Director, St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau): We had to remove sand. We had oil on the beaches for several months.
ALLEN: D.T. Minich is the head of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Mr. MINICH: We had several thousand sea turtle hatchlings die. It was a disaster. It was a huge mess and we don't want that to happen again.
ALLEN: That episode traumatized many Floridians. Tourism is the Sunshine State's number one industry. Anything seen as a danger to Florida's beaches has also long been seen as a danger to the state's economy.
Governors Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and Jeb Bush, a Republican, both adamantly opposed offshore drilling. Until recently, so did the current governor, Republican Charlie Crist. As he told WTSP-TV in Tampa, Crist now believes drilling for oil off Florida's coast could be acceptable, given the right conditions.
Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): The only way that that I would look at that in a positive light is if it's far enough, safe enough and clean enough. And so we've got to review exactly what the policy is, and make sure that it can provide energy diversification. But at the same time we've got to protect our beautiful beaches.
ALLEN: Crist was referring to an amendment recently approved by the Senate Energy Committee 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. It's an amendment that outrages Florida democratic Senator Bill Nelson.
Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): We are simply not going to let the oil boys have their way and sacrifice national security.
ALLEN: 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. Senator Nelson is fighting to remove the offshore drilling amendment from the bill, and if it comes to a floor vote, has threatened a filibuster. Nelson says drilling 10 miles off the coast would hurt Florida's economy, especially in the panhandle.
Sen. NELSON: The economy of that area depends on two things: The tourism economy that are attracted to those beautiful beaches, and the U.S. military bases. Those bases are located there because of the testing and training range over the Gulf of Mexico.
ALLEN: 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 with 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 Mica says is believed to contain 2.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Mr. DAVID MICA (Florida Petroleum Council): That's enough natural gas to provide the electricity - cleaner burning, lower carbon footprint natural gas -for a city the size of Tallahassee, where I live, for more than 140 years.
ALLEN: 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 why after years of opposition, some elected officials in Florida now appear willing to reconsider offshore drilling.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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