Some Locals Line Up Against Drilling
Panhandle communities and Gulf Coast chambers of commerce are among the unlikely allies environmentalists and Democratic opponents of offshore oil exploration are gaining as they push to block House efforts to lift the state’s 20-year-old drilling ban.
Thirty cities, counties, local chambers and other organizations have approved resolutions denouncing Gulf drilling – with the opposition centered in some of Florida’s most conservative, Republican-leaning voting districts.
“I think most people along the coast don’t want to risk even the possibility of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs around here, and that’s the beach and tourism,” said R. B. Johnson, mayor of Indian Rocks Beach, which is among several coastal towns in Pinellas County weighing-in against drilling.
Johnson said local officials in the county are pressing lawmakers to steer clear of the drilling plan, which has been the subject of state House workshop hearings expected to continue up to next spring’s legislative session.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, also took his first major step into the issue Monday – outlining plans for the Senate’s Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee to spearhead a study on Florida’s oil-drilling options and risks.
Atwater conceded that the report may not be completed in time for the March session.
“I think it’s good he’s trying to get as much information as possible to feel comfortable with this,” said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, which is helping lead the push on behalf of Florida Energy Associates.
Florida Energy Associates is a Daytona Beach-based group of independent oil-producers, whose 31 lobbyists are trying to convince lawmakers to give the governor and Cabinet authority to approve offshore oil leases.
While Bishop downplayed any delay stemming from Atwater’s action, opposition from local governments and businesses along the Gulf may prove a more formidable challenge.
Business worries about drilling also have so far been mostly muted in early public exchanges between environmentalists, academics, industry experts and lawmakers over drilling. But they linger.
Panama City Mayor Scott Clemons, a former Democratic state legislator, said that like many Panhandle locales, his city’s resolution against drilling stems chiefly from concerns that oil exploration could interfere with military missions from nearby Tyndall Air Force Base and Naval Support Activity-Panama City.
The Bay Area Defense Alliance, a business group, and Bay County Chamber of Commerce, also have expressed opposition to drilling.
“It’s really a double whammy here,” Clemons told the News Service of Florida. “We’re very concerned both for the military and for keeping tourists around here. Both are huge employers.”
Dawn Moliterno, president of the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce, said her organization’s opposition also stems from concerns about drilling effects on the region’s biggest employers.
“There’s a number of issues we’re concerned with,” Moliterno said. “We’ve even heard from experts who say drilling even far away from us could have an effect on beach sand. And our sand is one of the things that makes us different and really attract people to this area.”
At least five area chambers of commerce have publicly condemned offshore drilling, although the Florida Chamber of Commerce has stayed out of the debate. The chamber’s position on drilling seems intended to cover all sides of the dispute.
Adam Babington, a Chamber lobbyist, read the News Service a statement saying the organization supports drilling “if the permanent structures necessary for drilling are not visible from shore.” Similarly, military interests must be safeguarded, while there must also be “protection for Florida’s natural coastal and marine resources.”
The largest statewide business organization to take a stand against drilling is the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, citing concern about the state’s tourist economy.
The oil-drilling initiative is led in the House by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, while Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has promoted the effort in the Senate.
With the two lawmakers in line to lead their respective chambers following next year’s elections, some critics say fear of alienating these influential lawmakers is keeping other organizations from condemning the plan.
“I wish some of these business organizations would get the word out about how we along the Gulf Coast feel about what this could do to business here,” Clemons said.
Bishop, however, said state revenue from lease agreements and future royalties from oil production are needed to replace the billions of dollars in federal stimulus money that has sustained Florida’s budget during the recession, but which is on track to disappear next year.
“It’s the same song and dance we’ve heard before from these cities and counties and chambers,” Bishop said. “They never asked us to come to them and present the facts about drilling. Anybody not scared is going to have two-sided debate.”