Florida Wary of Offshore Drilling in Gulf of Mexico

June 24, 2009 05:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
An energy bill amendment that would permit offshore drilling in Florida is expected to reach the Senate this fall, but how might it impact Florida tourism and the environment?

Necessary Step or Environmental Disaster?

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that an energy bill amendment adopted by the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would permit offshore drilling up to 45 miles off the Gulf Coast of Florida. Currently, drilling for oil and gas is banned within 125 miles of the coast to protect the environment and the tourism industry.

The amendment also would allow drilling in the Destin Dome area, about 25 miles south of Pensacola, which is estimated to offer "at least 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas," the equivalent of 15 years' worth of heat for two million homes, Reuters reported.

According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the amendment has oceanographers very concerned. If a leak should occur, Florida's rapid "loop current" could carry an oil spill into the Florida Keys, the Gulf Stream, the Florida Straits and eventually north to southeastern Florida beaches. The Sun-Sentinel reports that "even a small oil spill ... would threaten the ecosystem of the Keys and potentially pollute the eastern shores."

The energy bill is advancing in the Senate, The Huffington Post reported, but Democrats and Republicans have both "expressed concerns" and are hoping to "make major changes when it reaches the Senate floor, probably in the fall."

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What Is Offshore Drilling?

NaturalGas.org outlines the history of drilling for natural gas offshore, and explains in words and photos how the process works. Although drilling on land allows for a platform-like surface from which to drill, water makes things less stable, so a platform must be constructed.

"This artificial platform can take many forms, depending on the characteristics of the well to be drilled, including how far underwater the drilling target is," according to NaturalGas.org. In some cases, a platform or "fixed platform rig" can be attached to the ocean floor. There are also "moveable rigs," which are often less expensive and used "for exploratory purposes."

Offshore drilling was initiated "as early as 1869" by T.F. Rowland, whose rig design resembles offshore rigs used today. It wasn't until 1947 that an offshore well was built in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Impacts of Offshore Drilling

Citing financial and environmental reasons, the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition has urged congressional delegates to renew Florida's moratorium on offshore drilling when they vote in September.

Environmental risks are very real, according to the Coalition, which cites documentation from the U.S. Minerals Management Services that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused more than "743,000 gallons of petroleum products to spill offshore and 457 pipelines to break."

Furthermore, "the complex infrastructure needed to explore, produce and bring petroleum ashore is highly vulnerable, and threatens coastal resources our Nation has invested billions to protect." Florida sees $65 billion annually from tourism, and nearly one million jobs are supported by the tourism sector.

Despite claims that offshore drilling would result in lower gas prices, such results would not happen any time soon, according to NPR. Although "there may be 18 billion barrels of oil in coastal waters," drilling there would not significantly impact "production or prices until 2030," NPR quoted the Department of Energy as saying. Oil industry executives concur that "drilling won't ease the oil pinch," reported NPR.

Opinion & Analysis: Should Florida allow offshore drilling?

In order to stop drilling near the Florida coast in 2002, former President George W. Bush bought back seven "federal leases from oil companies" in the Destin Dome area for more than $100 million. In addition to improving Gov. Jeb Bush's reputation in Florida, the decision bolstered the president's environmental record. "But it was a costly way to prolong the inevitable: more offshore drilling," wrote David Abraham in the Foreign Policy Association Energy blog. 

The current offshore drilling amendment is an attempt by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and other democrats "to get more Republican senators on board with a larger climate bill," wrote Abraham.

But could there be a way for environmentalists, and tourism and government officials, to come to an agreement on the issue?

A 2008 NPR article suggested that Florida tourism officials were "rethinking" their view of offshore drilling, led by Gov. Charlie Crist, who cited rising gas prices as a reason to drill off the Florida coast. "We're a tourist state," Crist told NPR. "We have to protect the beauty of Florida, but we also need to have people have the opportunity to drive here and be able to afford to do that, too."

Although tourism officials have consistently been opposed to offshore drilling, improvements in drilling methods had caused some to re-evaluate their stance. Robert Skrob, the executive director of the Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, told NPR, "We hear that there's new technology. We hear there [are] new processes. We hear everything is a lot safer."

An editorial in The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) in favor of offshore drilling said the practice could be extremely financially beneficial for the state "when accompanied by balanced and reasonable regulations and oversight."

The editorial cited the fact that Louisiana's state education system is funded mostly by "energy production royalties" as one reason for Florida to drill offshore. In addition, offshore drilling would create manufacturing jobs in Florida, the author contended.

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