OUR OPINION: Protect Florida’s beaches and fisheries from pollution threats

When the Florida House of Representatives this spring passed a bill to allow oil and gas drilling three miles off Florida’s coast, Senate President Jeff Atwater called the measure “dead in the water,” and it went nowhere. This left intact no-drilling zones 125 miles off the Panhandle and 235 miles west of Tampa.

But drilling fever is spreading in Florida — to the state’s peril.

Mr. Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican, has one more year heading the Senate. Meantime, his designated successor, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, plans to co-author a new drilling bill with incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

The new measure would allow the Florida Cabinet to issue oil leases five to six miles offshore. The motivation, the lawmakers say, is money. A Daytona Beach group of oil companies commissioned a study by Orlando economist Hank Fishkind that suggests the state could reap $2.4 billion a year from drilling. Also, two proposals in Congress would encourage cash-strapped states to increase offshore drilling by giving them a cut of the profits — 37 percent in one bill.

Both measures are dangerously short-sighted. While drilling techniques have improved when it comes to environmental risks, pollution threats remain from transporting oil. Pipelines can leak; tankers can founder on reefs. It isn’t just Florida’s beaches at risk but also its fisheries.

Two rays of hope for protecting Florida are our gubernatorial candidates — Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum and Democrat Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Both oppose drilling any closer.

Florida’s tourism and fisheries industries deserve the utmost protection.