Offshore Drilling Backers Explore Special Session Prospects
Gov. Charlie Crist is fueling hopes of supporters looking to open Florida waters to offshore drilling in exchange for potentially billions of dollars from oil companies.
But the Senate appeared wary Wednesday of rushing ahead with the controversial drilling proposal in a special session likely to be called in October on a Seminole tribal gambling compact.
“I’m open to the governor’s suggestions, but it’s important enough for us to take the time we need,” said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “If we can answer everyone’s concerns, I think we could move ahead in October. But if we can’t, it’s going to have to wait until regular session.”
Haridopolos said he plans to sponsor the Senate version of oil-drilling legislation, backed earlier this year by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. Haridopolos and Cannon are in line to become leaders of their respective chambers following next year’s elections.
“Anything is possible in a special session,” Cannon said, adding that he has spoken with Crist about moving ahead this fall with an energy package that would include offshore oil-drilling. “He sounds very interested in the idea.”
Crist raised the possibility of adding the issue to what is shaping up as an already unpredictable special session to ratify a Seminole compact expanding games at tribal casinos while pumping $6.8 billion into the state treasury over the next two decades.
While the tribe gets Las Vegas-styled slot machines at new table games at its seven casinos, pari-mutuel facilities across the state also would get extended cardroom hours and no-limit poker, while horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties would get higher-stake slot machines.
Still, few lawmakers contacted by the News Service of Florida said they expected the gambling compact to be approved easily. Adding oil-drilling to the mix could prove politically combustible, said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West.
“If they try to spring it on us like they did during the regular session, I imagine the outcome would be the same,” Saunders said, recalling that the Senate rejected the oil-drilling initiative when it emerged as part of an energy package proposed by late Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.
Crist on Tuesday called adding energy to the session, “prudent.” Senators, though, aren’t so sure.
“Right now, we’re focused on reviewing the compact,” said Jaryn Emhoff, a spokeswoman for Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. “I think Sen. Atwater doesn’t want to get too far down the road of what else you’ll have in a special session.”
As he gears up for a U.S. Senate run, Crist may be looking to salvage some measure of the executive order he signed more than a year ago, requiring that 20 percent of Florida’s electricity be generated by renewable sources by the year 2020.
King looked to get lawmakers to embrace that approach in legislation last spring. But it failed when Cannon began pushing the oil-drilling approach with the support of some of Florida’s biggest business organizations.
Cannon’s proposal would give the governor and Cabinet authority to lift the current ban on offshore drilling in exchange for a share in future royalties from oil extracted from below the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. The proposal could allow drilling as close as three miles offshore. Companies also would have to pay Florida $1 million to apply for drilling tracts.
Cannon, Haridopolos and other supporters say drilling could wean the state from its dependence on foreign oil, but also prove a source of billions of dollars and jobs in a state staggered by the recession. Polls conducted on behalf of Florida Energy Associates, an industry group leading the campaign and steering tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to Florida Democrats and Republicans, also show general support among Floridians for drilling, if safety can be assured.
Eric Draper, lobbyist for the Audubon Society of Florida, said his organization fears lawmakers pushing the energy idea into an October special session and packaging it as a energy conservation and oil-drilling idea.
“We’d rather you get a chance to vote for each separately,” Draper said. “There’s a logic to that. There isn’t logic to the idea of trying to advance renewable sources of energy while opening Florida waters to oil drilling.”