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Oil Lobby Scales Back Efforts on Gulf Drilling

Florida Energy Associates, the group spearheading the effort to open the state’s Gulf waters to offshore oil-drilling, is scaling back its once dominant presence at the state Capitol.

As many as two-thirds of the 30 lobbyists enlisted by the organization, which spent $234,000 on its legislative push last spring, will be shed in coming weeks, David Rancourt, Florida Energy Associates' lead lobbyist, said Thursday.
“It’s very hard to keep an army in the field without a war to fight,” Rancourt told the News Service of Florida. “This should not in any way be taken that we are retreating. But it’s clear that the issue is in something of a quiet period right now.”

Indeed, the sizzle behind the oil-drilling proposal has been largely silenced by Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, who in November ordered the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee to undertake a wide-ranging study of the effects of offshore drilling.

Atwater, a Republican candidate for chief financial officer, made it clear that he was in no hurry to follow the House’s lead in lifting the state’s two-decade-long ban on drilling within state waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, Atwater said the analysis will be driven by a “dispassionate review, not timetables or schedules.”

Environmentalists who oppose the proposal, which last year could have led to drilling as close as three-miles offshore, hailed Florida Energy Associates’ downsizing as a sign that supporters were losing their will to continue an increasingly uphill battle.

“It’s the first smart, strategic decision they’ve made since targeting Florida,” said Jerry Karnas, who directs a Florida climate project for the Environmental Defense Fund. “But these guys do have the ability to fly under the radar screen, so maybe taking away some of the focus on them is part of the strategy for winning approval.”

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida said supporters’ claims that drilling could bring billions of dollars swiftly into the Florida economy drew more skepticism from lawmakers worried about the state’s $50 billion tourist industry.

“Florida Energy Associates knows they’ve got a real tough sell,” Draper said.

Rancourt said Florida Energy Associates’ decision to reduce its lobbying presence is not based on concerns the issue will fail to surface during the spring session. House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, sponsored the measure last year and swept it through the House on a 70-43 vote.

Cannon and Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, slated to become Senate President in November, have both vowed to bring the legislation back when lawmakers convene in March.

Meanwhile, Rancourt said that to save money, Florida Energy Associates would likely pivot its lobbying presence around his own Southern Strategy Group and a handful of other lobbyists. Rancourt wouldn’t say which lobbyists would be jettisoned in the cutback, which he maintained was only temporary.

Associated Industries of Florida President Barney Bishop, whose organization also has been pitching the oil-drilling proposal, said he remains committed to the idea.

“We’re going to stay all over this,” Bishop said. “We were behind this idea before Florida Energy Associates came along.”

Florida Energy Associates, which identifies its principals only as independent oil producers, insists it is not a front for major oil companies. But the firm does know how to play the politics of petroleum, having steered $40,000 last fall to the Florida Republican Party and $30,000 to Florida Democrats.

Last fall, the organization, based in the Daytona Beach law office of lobbyist Doug Daniels, stepped up its lobbying presence by hiring three additional representatives, James Harris, Sean Pittman and Yolanda Cash Jackson, to largely focus on the 26 members of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators.

Twenty-five members of the caucus are Democrats, including seven senators seen as a crucial swing vote in the oil-drilling push. During the 2009 Legislature, the House voted 70-43 in favor of the measure, but the Senate refused to take up the matter.

The House voted mostly along party lines, with Democrats opposed. But the Senate is seen as the venue where the fight’s second round would prove fiercest – with some Republicans from Gulf coastal counties wary of lifting the offshore ban and possibly antagonizing constituents.

Thirty cities, counties, local chambers of commerce and other organizations have approved resolutions in recent months denouncing new drilling in the nearshore Gulf – with the opposition centered in some of Florida’s most conservative, Republican-leaning voting districts.

But with gas prices climbing and the Obama administration announcing this week that it would conduct lengthier and more rigorous examinations of proposed oil- and gas-leasing on public lands, Rancourt said the Gulf remains a potential resource for Florida.

“As Floridians, we have to ask ourselves does Florida want to be part of this country’s energy future?” Rancourt said. “I welcome people being cautious about moving forward on this. I’m doing my best to be patient.”

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