Offshore Drilling, The Constant Fight

Under The Hood


With every new presidential administration comes renewed threat to the Gulf of Mexico. Floridians got a reminder this week oil companies remain ready to drill new holes in the ocean the instant the federal government gives its an okay. Some political opportunism helped allay the threat this time, nobody should believe the risk was averted for long.

The issue on Jan. 4 earned the focus of Florida politics when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke unveiled a plan “Unleashing America’s Offshore Oil and Gas Potential.” For those Floridians whose memories date back all the way to 2010, we know drilling the Gulf also brings potential for disaster.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in April exploded in April that year, killing 11 people and opening up a crack in the earth that discharged an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the sea. While the explosion happened near Louisiana, that much oil covered a tremendous distance. Once it reached the beaches of Pensacola, international news of oil on Florida’s shores proved devastating to tourism across the state. Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, told SRQ Media Group at the time local hotels suffered roughly 800 room night cancellations over the three months. Realtors saw international contracts cancelled and overseas buyers turned their attention to property far from the Gulf Coast.

So it’s no shock Florida politicians reacted reflexively against Zinke’s plan (well, most of them—more on that later). Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, co-chairs of Florida’s Congressional Delegation, penned a strongly written letter Tuesday condemning the plan and demanded President Donald Trump’s Administration not rollback safety regulations put in place after Deepwater Horizon.

That same day, Zinke flew to Florida to meet with Gov. Rick Scott, then quickly announced drilling near Florida was “off the table.” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, questioned if that meeting with Rick Scott served mostly as political theater to bolster the governor’s expected Senate run against Nelson this year. It probably was, but a win’s a win. Nelson would have been wiser to congratulate the governor and take credit for the Congressional delegation’s actions. Regardless, Scott gets and deserves a feather in his cap for stopping drilling, but no one should let their guard down.

The oil industry since the 1980s has drooled Gulf and the oil underneath it. Govs. Bob Graham and Bob Martinez, a Democrat and Republican, each lobbied the federal government hard to prevent the drilling during Ronald Reagan’s administration. A series of disasters and political conveniences protected us for another 15 years. The Exxon Valdez spill turned President George H. W. Bush’s attention away from underwater exploration, and the desire to win Florida’s electoral votes in 1996 kept President Bill Clinton at bay. President George W. Bush wanted oil exploration everywhere, but left Florida alone as long as his brother Jeb remained in the governor’s mansion in 2006. But politics shift like our nervous sands. Shortly before the BP disaster, a push to open Florida waters to drilling amplified as state leaders like Gov. Charlie Crist began to buckle. A poll taken in April of 2010 showed 64 percent of the public supported drilling, hoping for jobs at the peak of the recession. President Obama looked soft on the issue until the BP explosion contributed to electoral pain for his party in 2010. Now Trump has tested waters, and only a close allegiance with Scott seems to have saved us again.

For now, drilling again serves as Kryptonite within Florida politics. Whether Nelson or Scott heads to the Senate next year, we’ll send a drilling opponent to the Senate, but what of the rest of our representation.

I’ll note that even before the BP disaster, Buchanan stood as a vigilant opponent of drilling. But when he rallied other congressmen to sign the state delegation’s letter of opposition, six Florida congressman failed to sign.

One was U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, who represents south Sarasota County’s vulnerable coastline, yet faces no serious opposition so far. Another was U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-DeLand, whom Trump also endorsed for governor. If DeSantis wins this year, especially if Scott loses his race, an entirely different voice on this issue will hold the president’s ear, and we’ll be fighting this battle all over again.

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