Florida legislators seek to lift offshore drilling ban

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By Catherine Dolinski, Tampa Tribune

TALLAHASSEE — Two Central Florida lawmakers are preparing to again try to lift the ban on offshore oil drilling within 10 miles of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The state House voted 70-43 this spring on a late-arrived plan from Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, to permit drilling offshore up to 10 miles — and as close as 3 miles — from the Gulf Coast. The plan never made it through the Senate.

“I’m hoping we can continue the dialogue with … supporters and opponents of the idea and maybe improve the proposal that we submitted this past session, make it better so it can come back,” said Cannon, who is next in line to become House speaker.

The plan he brought forth in April would have allowed the governor and Cabinet to decide whether to approve drilling lease applications from oil and gas companies. Proponents claim that resulting royalties, application fees and severance taxes could bring the state $1.5 billion a year, if untapped oil reserves match expectation.

Bill died in Senate

Cannon added his plan in an amendment to a simpler one from Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights. The amendment arrived the night before the bill’s last committee hearing, where members approved it for a full House vote. The momentum wound down when Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, refused to advance the plan without more time to give it a full vetting.

“We had the votes in the Senate for it to pass,” said Van Zant, who intends to file a similar proposal for the 2010 session.

Wherever he goes now, Van Zant said, he talks up drilling. “People are afraid of looking out there and seeing all these oil rigs. But that’s 1920s, 1930s, 1940s technology.”

Drilling technology has improved greatly since Florida imposed its ban in 1990, according to Florida Energy Associates, a group of mostly anonymous oil and gas producers pushing the proposal.

The group continues to retain 22 state lobbyists and the Ron Sachs Communications firm to handle public relations. As they did during the session, Ron Sachs associates declined Friday to give the names of the oil and gas producers they are representing, with the exception of Lance Phillips, head of Texas-based Oil and Gas Acquisitions, who spoke to reporters on the day of the hearing.

“I like to see anyone who’s participating in the process disclose who are they are, and what their interests are,” said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who was one of three Tampa Bay area Republicans who voted against the proposal.

Ryan Banfill, of Ron Sachs, said more group members will likely come forward as the discussion continues.

Environmentalists on alert

Eric Draper, lobbyist for the Audubon Society, accused proponents of basing guarantees of safe drilling on diagrams and speculation.

He said the very existence of vast oil reserves off the coast remains speculative, meaning there’s no evidence that drilling offshore will lower gas prices or bring the state substantial income anytime soon.

“We don’t know when they would go into production, how much they would produce, and we don’t know that any of that fuel would come ashore for use in Florida,” he said.

Environmentalists are already reaching out to coastal communities and property owners, Draper said. And with elections coming up in 2010, that could complicate things. Among those seeking higher office is Atwater, who is running for chief financial officer.

“We will make sure voters know where people were on this bill,” Draper said.

Michelle Ubben, an associate at Ron Sachs, said the political advantage lies on their side. She pointed to a poll showing 59 percent of the public support the general drilling concept.

Last week, Gov. Charlie Crist said that concept merits further exploring. But to support it, he said, he would need a guarantee that it would not harm the tourism industry or the environment.

Cannon said he can provide that guarantee. He would agree to requiring that drilling be invisible from shore. “I have never contemplated, and would not support, energy exploration that presented either a visual or an environmental threat to Florida’s pristine beaches.”

Modern rigs must stand upright only during drilling, Ubben said. After that, oil can be pumped from an undersea platform. She also raised the prospect of “directional drilling” done from the mainland or miles beyond the visibility line.

As for environmental hazards, and the likelihood of spills, supporters and opponents remain miles apart from agreeing.

There’s only one way to guarantee that tourists on west coast beaches would be safe, and that’s not to drill,” said Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, who also voted no. “We already had one barge accident in the last decade; that put a lot of oil on our southern beaches.”

Senate Community Affairs Chairman Mike Bennett said he’s not too worried about that, given technological advances. Bennett, R-Bradenton, objects on a different principle. “I believe the focus should be on renewable energy, not on punching more holes.”

The Senate passed a new renewable energy standard this spring but failed to persuade the House to consider it. Late in the session, both chambers buzzed with talk of combining the two measures as a compromise. Senate energy bill sponsor Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he was amenable to that idea, but Senate leadership was not.

Though he objected to King’s bill, Van Zant said he may add more support for renewable energy to his drilling proposal next year.

That’s a start, Bennett said. But he would still “adamantly” oppose drilling as close to shore as Cannon and Van Zant tried to make possible. “More than likely that bill would come through Community Affairs, and I doubt it would ever see the light of day.”

Reporter Catherine Dolinski can be reached at (850) 222-8382.

To see more of the Tampa Tribune or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.tampatrib.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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