Florida

Clash over drilling off Florida coast heats up in Congress

Two Florida members of the House of Representatives are joining one of the state’s senators to keep oil drilling far off shore, seeking to stave off efforts to bring the rigs closer to land.
Two Florida members of the House of Representatives are joining one of the state’s senators to keep oil drilling far off shore, seeking to stave off efforts to bring the rigs closer to land. MCT

Two Florida members of the House of Representatives are joining one of the state’s senators to keep oil drilling far off shore, seeking to stave off efforts to bring the rigs closer to land.

Opposing legislation in the Senate designed to ease drilling restrictions opens the way for a debate over drilling amid worries about the quality of the Gulf of Mexico.

Reps. David Jolly, a Republican from Indian Shores, and Gwen Graham, a Democrat from the Panhandle, introduced legislation late Wednesday that would extend an existing ban on oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico through 2027.

The ban, now set to expire in 2022, extends 125 miles off much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, and as much as 235 miles in some areas.

“It is paramount that we take steps to continue protecting our pristine beaches, our fisheries, our marine sanctuaries and coastal communities from the impact of drilling in the eastern Gulf and devastating events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010,” Jolly said in a statement. “An oil spill off the coast of Pinellas County would be disastrous to our quality of life and our local economy.”

He added: “The economic benefits simply do not outweigh the risks. We can achieve energy independence and national energy security without jeopardizing our natural resources.”

Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican who represents Sarasota and Bradenton, strongly supports the bill and has signed on as a co-sponsor, said spokesman Joe Sangiorgio.

Over in the Senate, legislation has been filed on both sides of the issue, setting up a clash of interests as the Senate considers broad energy policy legislation. Republicans now control both sides of Congress, opening to doors to a pro-oil GOP push.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., in May introduced his Offshore Energy and Jobs Act, which would allow drilling 50 miles off the state’s Gulf shores and begin opening up the area sooner than the law now calls for.

Cassidy sees it as a jobs issue. “Florida is a part of the Gulf and their residents should benefit from the Gulf’s natural resources,” he said in a statement last month. “Families across the nation, including in Florida, would hold jobs with better wages and better benefits that are created by expanding offshore energy production. I don’t understand why anyone would deny Floridians, or anyone else, access to these jobs.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Orlando, sees it as an issue of protecting his state’s environment and natural resources, saying in a statement last month that “Florida is under siege.”

“At some point, folks need to ignore Big Oil’s greed and simply do what’s right,” he added.

Responding to Cassidy’s legislation, Nelson filed a bill to keep the current drilling restrictions in place and to extend the law by five years. His approach is similar to the bill introduced in the House.

Nelson has long been active in efforts to keep rigs far off Florida’s shores, saying that the state’s environmental resources, tourist economy and military training areas are too important to allow the risks that come with drilling.

Graham, the Panhandle Democrat, noted that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident and resulting spill took place 180 miles from Panama City.

“We had minimal oil reach our beaches – but it still cost Northwest Florida’s economy hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said in a statement. “Imagine what would happen with a spill just 50 miles from our coast.”

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