Floridians oppose oil and gas drilling off the state's shores

Feb 23, 2001 01:00 AM

From biker to banker, from Republican governor to Democratic lawmakers, almost all Floridians oppose oil and gas drilling off the state's shores because of fears for the tourism industry and the environment. The nearly unanimous opposition may leave huge deposits of energy right where they are, at a time when they are needed to reduce reliance on foreign suppliers for oil and a shortage of natural gas.
There are two issues at centre stage. One is the Destin Dome, a huge deposit of natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico just 25 miles south of the Florida Panhandle's pristine beaches. The other is the auction of oil leases South and West of the natural gas deposit.
Chevron USA leased the Destin Dome from the federal government several years ago and says it is one of the richest natural gas fields in the country. Chevron needs only approval from the Secretary of Commerce to start production, although Florida has a ban on drilling within 100 miles of its coast.
The sale of oil leases for 6 mm acres south of Alabama, stretching into waters off the Florida coast, is tentatively set for December, but a final decision has yet to be made. Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother, sent a letter to the new administration warning it to keep oil drillers away from Florida's coast, noting it would be the first such sale since 1988.
"I am confident the new administration will recognize the need to protect sensitive natural resources located both offshore, and along the Florida coastline, for the benefit of the entire nation," the Florida governor wrote. The administration also is considering exploration for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's Northern slope. Unlike drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, that would take an act of Congress.

Although there is little tourism in the area, environmentalists argue drilling would ruin the only wildlife refuge in an ecosystem north of the Arctic Circle. But all three of Alaska's congressmen favour the proposal, and polls show a large majority of their constituents agree.
The federal Minerals Management Service will make the decision on whether to go ahead with the Gulf of Mexico lease sales, but it won't say when that will be. President Bush indicated during the campaign that he would honour Florida's ban on drilling off its shores, but those who want to drill are making a case that the field is closest to Alabama.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, said he was pleased during confirmation hearings for Interior Secretary Gale Norton when she said she and Bush oppose new oil leases in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. She said she couldn't comment on the Destin Dome because it is still under litigation. Chevron filed suit last year asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages if it is not allowed to drill. That case is pending in federal court in Washington.
Chevron said in the suit: "Chevron's plan contributes significantly to the national interest. Any impact on Florida's coastal resources will be negligible." Florida responded ina brief that, "Chevron has not proved that its short-term contribution to the nation's fossil fuels would outweigh the risks of substantial long-term harm to valuable natural resources." But Skip Horvath of the Natural Gas Suppliers Association said the need for gas is critical. "It's not too strong a word for it. We're desperate for gas," he said.

Fuel prices are soaring, including a tripling of the cost of natural gas in the last year, and a massive power shortage has hit California. Those factors and administration ties to the energy industry have cast some doubt on which way the White House will move. It can't hurt that Bush's brother is governor of Florida, and has his feet planted firmly in opposition to drilling.
The biggest fear is that drilling would bring industrialization that would damage the state's tourism industry, the most lucrative in the nation. Another problem is the damage accidents could inflict on the environment.
"Offshore drilling and the Florida offshore environment and economy don't mix," said Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "It represents a definite threat to quality of life for all Floridians. It crosses all lines --- Republicans, Democrats, rich and poor, bikers and bankers. "It is one of the unique issues of our time because there is such unanimity across the state."

Source: United Press International
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