Huge gulf divides oil drilling opinions
TAMPA - John Hofmeister has a message for lawmakers who think a ban on near-shore oil drilling is a smart move. It's not. When it comes to oil and gas exploration, he said, Florida wants other states to take the risk while it reaps the rewards. "If Floridians reject the development of natural resources, leading to the escalation of high-priced fuel, they are cutting off their nose to spite their face," said Hofmeister, a former president of Shell Oil who leads Citizens for Affordable Energy.Peter Clark, executive director of Tampa Bay Watch, disagrees. "I think what's going on in the Gulf of Mexico today is a real eye-opener for many, many people," Clark said. "People are much more aware of how sensitive the coast is. I am glad they are moving forward" with a drilling ban. Those two viewpoints, offered by a variety of people, will take center stage this week in Tallahassee when lawmakers meet in a special session to talk about a proposed constitutional ban on near-shore drilling. Such a ban would make it illegal to drill for oil in state waters that range from three to 10 miles offshore. For months - since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in a fiery ball and sank off the Louisiana coast April 20 - people have lined up on both sides of the issue. It has become the nation's worst environmental disaster, eclipsing the nightmare that was the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. In Florida, tourism has taken a major hit as vacationers have stayed away, even though only a few Panhandle beaches have seen their white sands tainted. Different consequences Clark saw enough evidence firsthand with the 1993 oil spill that resulted from a collision in the shipping channel near the Sunshine Skyway bridge and later tainted Pinellas County beaches. He has seen too many photographs of birds covered in oil and the damage done in Louisiana, Alabama and north Florida from the BP gusher in the Gulf. Clark worries that if there is a leak from a rig close to the coast, there will be no time to react. "Response for an oil spill takes time, material and people," the leader of the local environmental group said. "When it is close to shore, you don't have the chance to respond. "It makes us very vulnerable," Clark added, referring to the prospect of near-shore drilling. "Having oil rigs just over the horizon could have unintended consequences that we can't even predict right now." Hofmeister, who has written a book called "Why We Hate the Oil Companies," fears other consequences of a possible Florida ban on drilling. He sees the state as being a victim of an "energy abyss" that could occur this decade. In his book, he talks about blackouts and years of long lines for high-priced gasoline. All because there is an inadequate infrastructure for a country that uses energy like there is an endless supply, he says. Nowhere is that more evident than in Florida, Hofmeister said. For a state that loves millions of visitors who drive cars that gulp gasoline, Florida isn't very receptive to building an energy infrastructure that supports the tourists or its residents, the former Shell executive said. There are no refineries in the state. There are no pipelines to help bring fuel here from other states. "I think you have developed a wonderful lifestyle in Florida that is wonderfully dependent on energy imports," Hofmeister said. It works elsewhere Other states have managed the marriage between tourism and a burgeoning oil and gas industry. In Louisiana, the economy is more robust because of the energy industry, Hofmeister said. "The opportunity for high-paying jobs associated with natural resource development is something that people in Florida should consider," he said. Proponents of drilling near Florida's coast tout the 20,000 to 25,000 new jobs they say would be created, along with an $8 billion annual windfall they say the state would enjoy. Now, scores of highly qualified engineers graduating from Florida universities are taking their talents to Texas and Louisiana instead of staying home, according to the oil-executive-turned-author. "I think the rest of the Gulf Coast has a successful tourist trade and drilling," Hofmeister said. "I live in Texas, and Texas beaches are beautiful." Clark, the Tampa Bay environmentalist, doesn't buy that argument. "They don't have the white sandy beaches that we have here in West Central Florida," he said. "They do have tourism, but they don't have the pristine beaches or the unrestricted view that we have along our coast. That is something we all need to treasure; that is something that is unique." Also unique is what happens when oil from a rig - be it near shore or well offshore - spews into the Gulf. The BP disaster has forced Panhandle counties to spend millions of dollars each to deal with oil on their beaches. Inland, counties have been hard hit because not as many tourists from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and other states are driving to Florida for vacation. That means less gasoline bought, fewer hotel room stays, a big drop in sales tax revenue. For decades, Florida native Phillip Ware has wanted to tap into the waters of the Gulf in search of oil. The president of Coastal Petroleum in Apalachicola, Ware said the furor surrounding the BP disaster has not dampened that desire. "It's just the biggest tragedy in history that BP launched into doing what it did," Ware said. "But the resources and the potential are so enormous it would be a second tragedy if this first tragedy stopped exploration for oil in the Gulf. "This accident should be reviewed and every safeguard put in place that can be put in," Ware said. "But do not on short notice shut down the exploration forever by constitutional amendment." Not in our backyard Coastal once had several offshore leases near Florida, but the state never allowed the company to drill, Ware said. Eventually, state officials bought out the leases. Year after year, governor after governor, decade after decade, legislature after legislature, the message has remained the same, the Coastal Petroleum official said. Not in our backyard. "You look at a map of oil and gas production, and you have solid production off Texas, Louisiana and Alabama," Ware said. "It amazingly stops at the political boundary of Florida. Geologically and physically, it doesn't stop there." The amendment, if approved by legislators this week, would also have to be approved by voters in the fall. But how much of a difference would such a ban make? After all, oil companies could set up shop just outside state boundaries in federal waters. "As you can see, tar balls don't care about those types of political boundaries so much," said John Jaeger, associate professor of geology at the University of Florida. "They go where the water takes them." Jaeger said the amount of oil believed to be near the coastline is not enough to spur oil companies to line up for drilling. "There's nothing to suggest that from any of the work that has been done there is any large reservoir of oil," the associate professor said. "There just aren't very large petroleum reserves off Florida. Any type of development that would be considered would require a decade or more of exploration." Although the potential in near-shore waters is either unknown or limited, according to many, beyond that lies a treasure-trove of potential energy and potential wealth. State Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Republican from Clay County who is an unabashed drilling supporter, said there are 9 billion barrels of oil in the untapped, undrilled eastern Gulf beyond state boundaries. And another 37 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, he added. Those figures, he said, are more than a drop in the bucket for an energy-gobbling nation and will make a sizeable contribution. "We must get off foreign oil," Van Zant said. The move to ban drilling forever is a mistake, the lawmaker said, just like banning airline flights would be a mistake after one jetliner crash. And, he said, today's technology would allow oil to be obtained without rigs towering above the surface. "What you see out over the Gulf of Mexico today with no oil rigs is what you will see when we bring a new industry to Florida," Van Zant said. The law can change It's against state law to drill for oil in Florida's territorial waters. There are those who say a ban is not needed, but proponents say it's necessary because they don't know when the law might change. "I think what this Legislature has proven is the fact that something is law doesn't mean it can't be changed," said state Rep. Rick Kriseman, a Democrat from St. Petersburg who will sponsor the House version of the constitutional amendment bill. "For the last two years, leadership has endeavored to change the law to allow drilling three miles off our coast." Kriseman acknowledges that even with a ban, an oil company could come in at a future date and start drilling within sight of the shoreline. "It is about sending a message," he said, explaining that he hopes federal officials will take note of the state action and make a permanent move to ban drilling in federal waters off Florida as well. "We don't have authority to prevent it 50 miles off our coast or 20 miles off our coast," Kriseman said. "But we do have authority to prevent it 10 miles off our coast. We need to say no. We need to make sure our future leaders don't acquiesce to the big money from the oil industry."
Reporter Rob Shaw can be reached at (813) 259-7999.