PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/PROVIDED Oil drilling rigs could be built in
the Gulf within sight of the beaches under the plan approved Monday.
TALLAHASSEE – A last-minute proposal to allow oil and gas exploration as close as three miles from Florida’s coast passed the state House of Representatives on Monday 70 to 43.
The Senate has until Friday, the last day of the session, to take up the proposal, which local Republican Sen. Mike Bennett doubts will happen.
"But I have seen the world change up here in six days," said Bennett, who opposed the bill, adding that due to its last-minute introduction, legislators had very little information.
The bill would enable the governor and Cabinet to grant oil and gas exploration and drilling leases three to 10 miles from shore, a sharp departure from earlier efforts to limit drilling up to hundreds of miles offshore.
A proposed amendment to allow voters in coastal counties to have final approval over drilling decisions failed.
Proponents of the bill cited advantages including generating revenue for state coffers and creating other economic advantages for Florida.
Oil exploration off the coast represents "a whole new industry for Florida" with new, high paying jobs and the prospect of lessening energy dependence on foreign oil, said bill co-sponsor Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Republican from Putnam County, who noted that everyone in the House chamber arrived in a car. "Before Christopher Columbus came here and discovered America, all the thinkers of his day said, ‘Don’t go near the perceived edge.’ "
An amendment to the bill promised $25 million from leasing revenues to several agencies, including the state university system for research into fossil fuel alternatives, the Internal Improvement Trust Fund for beach renourishment, environmental science programs in elementary middle and high schools, veterans programs and the Florida Energy and Climate Commission.
‘Dagger in the heart’
Local Republican Rep. Bill Galvano voted against the bill, but favored having the discussion.
"I have always been very protective of the coastline and have never supported offshore drilling," he said.
An oil spill would "put a dagger in the heart of my economy and the economy of many coastal communities," said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Democrat representing parts of Manatee and Sarasota County.
"Siesta Beach is rated one the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world because it is fine crystalline sand, completely unpolluted. People come literally from all over the world to visit our beaches. It is a part of our economic base," he said. "Just the smallest of spills will send people elsewhere. These are not just beaches but pristine beaches."
A suggestion from another representative that oil rigs attract jellyfish elicited chuckles, but is no joke, he said.
"Every time we have a red tide bloom we lose reservations all across the region," he said, adding that stinging jellyfish would have the same effect, and could also affect commercial fishing.
Bennett said he might reconsider the bill if revenue from the rigs was channeled into renewable energy.
Local reaction negative
"I cannot believe that anyone would support the risk of the entire ecology and economy with an industry that could not pay off for decades," said Lisa Marie Phillips, director of project and program management for the city of Bradenton Beach, where she has launched several environmental programs.
Oil rigs so close to shore would be discouraging for her project teams, she said, adding, "Why should we worry about water quality? What’s the point?
"And how do you market a holiday destination where you can see oil derricks offshore? People are certainly not going to want tar balls on the beach," she said. "How do you package that as a wedding destination?"
"I think oil drilling is terrible for tourism," said David Teitelbaum, Manatee County Tourist Development Council (TDC) member and Bradenton Beach hotelier. "It doesn’t belong close to the beaches. Tourism is the number one dollar income in Florida."
Even if the risk of an oil spill is negligible, as proponents have claimed, "I’m totally against it because there other places to go," he said. "A couple hundred miles away is more suitable."
"We do not want oil drilled off our shores," TDC member and Bradenton Beach hotelier Barbara Rodocker agreed. "Tourism is the biggest industry in Florida. Is there any guarantee that an oil spill will not damage our beaches and our tourism?"
If oil rigs are allowed within sight of the beach, "it would definitely affect tourism," said Ashok Sawe, owner of Palm Tree Villas in Holmes Beach. "Oil revenue does not even compare to tourism revenue. For a state that calls itself ‘The Sunshine State,’ I do not understand why there is not a solar panel on every roof."
Allowing oil drilling in the Gulf is inconsistent with existing environmental regulations, said Suzi Fox, of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch.
"We’re so cautious about not allowing anyone to pluck a mangrove on the shoreline," she said, "or putting two feet of wood in front of their property on (sea turtle) nesting beaches."
Karen Bell, of A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, wondered why lawmakers would consider allowing oil rigs within three miles of shore when commercial fishermen have to go nine miles out in the Gulf to fish.
"Maybe they think it’s more important to provide oil than food," she said.
Contact your lawmakers:
• Gov. Charlie Crist - 850-488-5394; e-mail Charlie.Crist@MyFlorida.com
• State Sen. Mike Bennett - 727-6349; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
• State Rep. Bill Galvano - 708-4968; e-mail from Web site: www.myfloridahouse.gov