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How Did it Come So Close in Florida this Year?

Hearld Tribune Opinion Piece

Proponents of the recent plan to allow oil drilling off Florida's coast came far too close -- in more ways than one. Their progress has encouraged them to try again next year. And opponents had better be ready.

The legislative proposal -- which would have permitted oil and gas drilling as close as three miles off Florida's Gulf Coast beaches -- surfaced without advance notice, only 10 days before the end of the Legislature's 60-day session. The legislation was approved, 70-43, by the Florida House of Representatives. Fortunately for Floridians who value their tourism-based economy and clean coastal environment more than they do oil-drilling royalties, had Senate President Jeff Atwater to take up the far-reaching, last-minute legislation without what he called a "serious review."

Opponents of drilling off Florida's coast -- whether they are environmental groups, public officials or private citizens -- need to conduct their own "serious review." They need to learn how this monumental legislation got so far, so quickly; what it proposed to do; what the impacts of the plan would be; and how to prevent it from becoming law.

HOW it began This Year

The genesis of the House bill was likely Congress' decision last September not to extend a 26-year-old ban on new oil leases in U.S. coastal waters. A ban specific to the eastern Gulf, negotiated in 2006, remains in effect but applies only to federal waters -- those outside the state's 10-mile limit.

Since 1990, Florida itself has explicitly banned oil and gas exploration or drilling in state waters, which extend from three to 10 miles offshore. The recent House bill (HB 1219) would have repealed that ban.

Drilling in state waters would be a boon to oil companies: Shallow waters would make drilling easier and cheaper, and proximity to the shore would lower the cost of transporting the oil or gas, by pipeline or tanker.

Exactly who initiated the push for near-shore drilling is not clear, but the consensus is that Texas oil companies are behind the effort. Bishop told the Herald-Tribune's Follick that, halfway through the legislative session, Associated Industries was recruited by lobbyist David Rancourt, who represented a group called Florida Energy Associates.

Enlisting the next speaker

Energy Associates, which had been working on the proposal for months, then persuaded Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican designated to be House speaker in 2010, to be the measure's chief advocate. The group had already drafted the amendment language and hired a public relations company to promote it, a polling company and an economist to provide revenue estimates, according to the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald bureau in Tallahassee.

The proponents' approach was subtle and cynical. They said they sought only "dialogue" on the issue of near-shore drilling. Their bill would allow the governor and the three-member state Cabinet to accept bids for leasing near-shore tracts for exploration.

The state would collect a nonrefundable fee of $1 million just for hearing a presentation, plus royalties if drilling were permitted. The proponents cited the "breathtaking economic opportunity" by which the state could gain $31 billion in revenues over 20 years, much of which the legislation targeted for such worthy causes as the Florida Forever land-acquisition fund, solar energy incentives and beach renourishment projects.

What they didn't say

The proponents didn't say the bill went beyond "dialogue," directing the Department of Environmental Protection to "develop a plan, including legislative recommendations, for the implementation of an offshore oil and natural gas drilling program."

They also didn't note that the estimated revenue pales in comparison with Florida's $65 billion per year tourism industry -- much of which depends on clean and unobstructed waters, views and shorelines.

The proponents' pitch was nothing new. Similar presentations have been made for years in Washington. The only surprise is that 70 state representatives would agree so quickly to risk Florida's economy and environment for a relative pittance.