ST. PETE BEACH — Nearly 200 people clasped hands along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday as a visible sign to oil companies that offshore drilling and other fuel prospecting efforts aren’t welcome in Florida.
But the biggest thing local residents can do to turn the tide on fossil fuel use and the quickening pace of climate change is to vote “yes” for Pinellas County’s public transit plan this fall, said several participants in the annual Hands Across the Sand protest in St. Pete Beach.
“We’re more dependent on oil with our lack of transit options than any other metropolitan area in the United States,” said Phil Compton of the Sierra Club in St. Petersburg.
“Greenlight Pinellas is the most powerful thing that we can do to create that system to give us freedom from the threat of oil,” he said.
A 1-percent sales tax increase is on November’s ballot. Approval of the referendum would fund the county’s long-range plan to vastly expand bus service and add a light-rail line between major business centers.
Among posters Saturday with slogans such as “Say No to Big Oil” were many signs in support of Greenlight Pinellas as well as clean energy sources like solar power.
At about noon, the chain of activists, students, and a few parents and children stretched across the beach between the Alden Suites Beachfront Resort and the TradeWinds Resort, catching a few stares from sunbathers stretched out to enjoy a breezy, warm afternoon on the sand.
It was the fifth year for Hands Across the Sand, which began on Florida’s Gulf Coast a few months before the calamitous BP oil spill in 2010 and since has grown into a nationwide event targeting a myriad of fossil fuel programs, including the construction of a pipeline between the United States and Canada, and the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracking to extract natural gas and oil undeground.
Thousands of people signed up for Saturday’s demonstration in places as varied as the Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota and in Chicago, Compton said.
While efforts to keep oil wells out of Florida waters largely have been successful — bolstered by a federal law that has placed a moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf until 2022 — that doesn’t mean the industry has backed off, said Cathy Harrelson, Florida organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network.
In December, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered a Texas company to cease an unpermitted oil extraction technique similar to fracking in Naples.
Fracking is a process of removing oil and gas in underground rock with high pressure water and chemicals.
Such activities are a major threat to Florida’s aquifer, Harrelson said.
What’s more, continued reliance on fossil fuels only will continue to accelerate climate change and a predicted rise in sea levels that could cripple coastal communities, she said.
“Climate change is very, very real; very much right now, and Florida is in the cross-hairs,” said Harrelson, who organized Saturday’s event.