Drilling Backers: No Military Problem in Federal Waters
A new Defense Department analysis downplays the impact of offshore oil-drilling on military operations in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, although those hailing the findings Tuesday cautioned it stops short of providing similar assurances on exploration closer to Florida’s shoreline.
Securing America’s Future Energy, a nonprofit, pro-drilling organization, released a report Tuesday claiming that a 2005 letter from then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warning against expanded oil and gas exploration “were premature and based on incomplete information.”
“Oil and gas exploration will have little impact on the military mission,” said Col. Martin Sullivan, the retired Marine who compiled the report in collaboration with Commonwealth Consulting Corp., a suburban Washington, D.C., firm specializing in defense and homeland security.
The report highlighted a 2009 Defense Department review that Gulf drilling presented only a “minimal risk” to Navy and Air Force operations. The amount of military activity in the eastern Gulf – which proponents say may contain 3.9 billion barrels of oil – also proved to be less than most analysts considered, the findings showed.
Sullivan, however, avoided contradicting military officials who as recently as last week, warned a Florida House committee that drilling as close as three-miles offshore could prove an obstacle to flight-testing and missile-firing activities in the gulf.
Asked if near-shore drilling could still present a problem for the military, Sullivan said, “that’s a potential.” But he also said recent opposition from the Panhandle’s Eglin Air Force Base and elsewhere could be rooted in concerns about “leaving them less options than in the past.”
Eric Draper of the Audubon Society of Florida, which opposes offshore drilling, said he was more inclined to rely on military opposition to expanded exploration voiced by those who have appeared before the Legislature. Col. Bruce McClintock, commander of Eglin’s Air Armament center last week warned that drilling could interfere with the base’s operations.
“I think he’s a more credible source of information rather than some oil industry think tank out of Washington,” Draper said.
But former military officials taking part in the release of Tuesday’s report were unswerving.
“It’s completely unnecessary to close out the eastern Gulf of Mexico,” concluded Adm. Gregory Johnson, a retired Navy commander who took part in the report’s release, along with North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat and leading proponent of drilling in the Gulf.
Dorgan last year got an amendment attached to energy legislation that would allow drilling in federal waters 45 miles off Florida. Dorgan and Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Neson have sparred in recent years over drilling.
Nelson was quick to dismiss SAFE’s findings.
“It should come as no surprise that a group that touts drilling off Florida should produce a study saying drilling there is okay,” Nelson said. “Its report must be considered against a backdrop: it was produced by a group that helped craft and promote legislation that would allow oil drilling 45 miles off Florida’s coast.
“And it’s probably no coincidence that the sponsor of the legislation today also touted the study in question while renewing a call for passage of his bill,” Nelson added.
Dorgan is well-positioned in the federal oil-drilling fight, serving as the second-highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chair of a budget subcommittee overseeing Energy Department spending.
Dorgan said Tuesday that his efforts to expand drilling in deeper Gulf waters have been enhanced by the debate within the Florida Legislature over drilling within state waters, which stretch up to 10 miles offshore.
Opposition “is undermined, in part, by a Legislature that says we would like to produce in Florida waters close to shore,” Dorgan said.
Little is known about oil reserves within Florida’s state waters, but that is the focus of efforts heavily promoted in the House but stalled in the Senate – where Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, has ordered a committee to undertake a lengthy study.
Thirty-nine exploratory wells were drilled in the 1970s and 1980s from Pensacola to Tampa Bay, yielding vast reserves of natural gas – along with some drilling producing a light, low-grade crude. But there have been no signs of the gushers proponents of the lastest push envision.
The federal Minerals Management Service has estimated that reserves within the first 100 miles of Florida’s coast will produce only natural gas and not oil.
“The bottom line remains the same: oil drilling and military training don’t mix,” Nelson said. “And there isn’t enough oil off Florida’s coast to make a difference in our country’s energy independence; nor is there enough to risk the environment and tourist-driven economy of the nation’s fourth-largest state.”