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Adversaries Bring Oil Drilling Debate to the Web

The debate over offshore drilling hit the airwaves and the Internet Wednesday as opponents squared off over the viability and desirably of lifting a decades’ old ban on oil and gas exploration in Florida waters.

Meeting as part of a series of events in anticipation of action during the 2010 legislative Session, adversaries faced off in a two-hour forum broadcast over public television and on the Internet. Following six hours of public testimony last week, a pair of panels responded to questions from moderator Paul Flemming and queries posed by audience members and those watching on Web casts and a handful of public television and radio stations.

The battle lines remain clearly drawn.

Representing proponents of lifting the ban were David Rancourt, a lobbyist for Southern Strategy Group, oil industry consultant Terry Cunningham and Hank Fishkind, an Orlando-based economist working with the Legislature to determine the economic impact of exploring in state waters.

“We’ve said for years that this is just one arrow in the quiver of energy independence,” Rancourt said. “We can’t get to energy independence on alternative (fuels.) We simply can’t.”

Speaking against lifting the ban were Eric Draper, deputy director of Florida Audubon, David McLain of the Apalachicola Bay and River Keepers and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.

“Our intention is that everyone understands it is simply not worth it when you compare it to our coastal economy,” Draper said. .

Also in attendance were Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Dean Cannon, upcoming leaders in their respective chambers and likely sponsors of bills to lift the ban on drilling as close as three miles from shore.

“I’m inclined to support drilling off the coast but I have a lot of questions. Some were answered, some were not,” Haridopolos said following the debate. “I think we take our time.”

Cannon, a driving force behind House efforts to lift the 1990 ban, said Wednesday’s debate marks the end of only the first phase of discussions over the issue in a dialog that will continue leading up to the 2010 session.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, said the House Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning will meet next week to begin focusing its discussion on how to craft a bill that provides adequate safeguards while providing the incentives to private industry to explore.

“We are very carefully now trying to take input on all of these big issues – going from the general to the specific – so that when a bill emerges….it will be a fully vetted product,” Cannon said.

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