Editorial: Drilling off Florida is a false promise

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The Tampa Tribune

The “drill, baby drill” crowd is at it again. Advocates are clamoring, in Washington and Tallahassee, in legislation and ballot initiatives, to drill off Florida.

It is discouraging that so many people are willing to ruin Florida’s coast for the illusory promise of cheap energy and more jobs.

And make no mistake, drilling too close could be the ruin of our renowned beaches and a coastal economy that, including fishing, hotels and other enterprises, accounts for about $562 billion a year.

The state now has a 125-mile buffer from drilling. The buffer extends to 235 miles off Tampa Bay to accommodate military flight training.

Members of Congress are pushing a measure that would allow drilling just 45 miles off shore. And state Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park is spearheading a heavily financed effort in the state Legislature to allow drilling in state waters as close as three miles from shore. A referendum effort, if approved, also would open up coastal waters.

There is no question that drilling techniques have improved in the past 30 years, but such excavation still involves the use of toxic substances such as mercury and lead that are discharged into the ocean. Accidents are unavoidable.

And the bulk of the oil-spill threat comes from storage, shipping and the pipelines necessary to support the rigs.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates there is about one spill per year of at least 1,000 barrels in the Gulf of Mexico and that every three to four years a spill of at least 10,000 barrels is to be expected. (A barrel contains 42 gallons.)

A Minerals Management Service study of the Destin dome deposit off the Panhandle found that an oil spill would have more than a 50 percent chance of making its way into state waters. The chances of a spill washing onto recreational beaches would be one in three.

And don’t buy those claims about oil operations being hurricane proof. The federal report on the response to Hurricane Katrina says the storm caused at least 10 oil spills, “releasing the same quantity of oil as some of the worst oil spills in U.S. history.”

Louisiana had at least six major spills of more than 100,000 gallons and four spills of more than 10,000 gallons.

The report says, “All told, more than 7.4 million gallons poured into the Gulf Coast region’s waterways, over two-thirds of the amount that spilled out during America’s worst oil disaster, the rupturing of the Exxon Valdez tanker off the Alaskan coast in 1989.”

A major spill on the beaches of western Florida would be catastrophic to the state’s $65 billion-a-year tourism industry, not to mention the state’s wildlife.

The harm would be enduring. Studies after a Panama spill found it would take 50 years for mangroves to recover and 150 years for coral reefs.

Oceanographers say the Gulf’s Loop Current, which flows into the Gulf Stream, could soon carry a deep-water spill to the Florida Keys’ reefs or East Coast beaches. A spill 100 miles or closer to the coast could end up on Tampa Bay area beaches. That’s why they say the 125-mile buffer is prudent.

Moreover, the ancillary facilities required by the oil industry would create an industrial wasteland along Florida’s fabled coastline.

Is this what we want in exchange for the promised 20,000 jobs and $31 billion in state revenue that promoters say drilling in state waters would produce over 20 years? That is selling out cheap.

There is no reason to take such risks. Any Gulf drilling would take years to reach the pump and have little effect on prices, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Plenty of other deposits are available for drilling. Of the 90 million acres of federal land – on and off shore – being leased to the industry, less than 1 out of 4 acres is being utilized.

Congress opened about 8 million acres of the east-central Gulf to oil and gas development in 2006 in exchange for protecting the waters close to shore until at least 2022. The industry hasn’t pursued those sites.

The country, to be sure, is going to continue to need oil for many years, and additional drilling should be part of its strategy – along with a focus on renewable energy, which could generate far more domestic jobs than a continued dependence on oil. Florida is well-positioned to capitalize on the renewable industry, with biofuels, solar and wave energy.

Perhaps, after careful study and as a part of a comprehensive and diversified energy policy, it might be appropriate to reduce the drilling buffer somewhat, though drilling in state waters should be unthinkable.

But a panicky rush to drill anywhere and everywhere – without regard to Florida’s economy or environment – makes no sense.

www2.tbo.com

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