TALLAHASSEE — A secretive group of powerful legislators, business groups and Texas oil companies has been laying the groundwork since December to win legislative approval to open Florida waters to oil exploration and end the 20-year drilling moratorium.
Florida Energy Associates, which identifies itself only by saying it is financed by a group of independent oil producers, has hired lobbyists, public relations experts, a financial consultant and a pollster to help advocate for the sale of drilling leases in state waters between the shore and 10 miles off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
And the group has influential friends to help: Associated Industries of Florida, the Association of Builders and Contractors and several petroleum companies.
Between April and July, the group spent as much as $234,000 on legal work and lobbying to push a bill through the Legislature last session. The measure passed the House, 70-43, but died in the Senate.
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Supporters say defeat won’t happen again.
“I predict we’ll pass the bill and the governor will sign it,” boasted Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida.
He has reason to feel confident. The group has heft: Florida Energy Associates has contributed $55,000 to political parties — $35,000 to Republicans and $20,000 to Democrats — since May. The group has sponsored legislative leadership dinners and recruited the two of the most powerful state lawmakers to sponsor the oil-drilling bill in 2010: Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Melbourne Republican slated to become Senate president in 2010, and Rep. Dean Cannon, an Orlando Republican set to become House speaker in 2010.
Cannon and Haridopolos say they’ll earmark the revenue raised by oil and gas to programs such as Everglades clean-up, conservation land-buying, renewable energy development and children’s health care.
“I think it’s smart economic policy, and it’s the way to fund environmental protection and preservation,’’ Cannon said.
And the group’s aim has public support. An April poll by Mason-Dixon research, commissioned by the group, found that that 59 percent of Floridians would support drilling off Florida’s coasts and 88 percent support it if they can be sure it will not harm the environment. A July poll by the Tarrance Group, also for them, found that 65 percent of Floridians favor oil drilling off state beaches, while 29 percent oppose it.
But the biggest enticement for Florida is the promise of cash. Orlando economist Hank Fishkind, hired by the group, estimated the state could earn as much as $2.3 billion in oil and gas revenues a year, from oil leases and taxes.
That promise plus the polling numbers have softened Gov. Charlie Crist’s opposition. He now says oil drilling should be an option for Florida.
“Now, we have another shot at it. We have the time to do it and we have the facts on our side,’’ said Doug Daniels, a Daytona Beach lawyer representing Florida Energy Associates.
Lining up on the other side: environmentalists, including Audubon of Florida, and government officials from coastal counties who say they have fewer resources but strong public support.
Susan Glickman of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls it “a David and Goliath situation.”
“Funders with deep pockets are coming to our state trying to ram down a drastic policy that the public will reject,’’ she said, dismissing the polling data as inaccurate.
“When people have the ability to look at the real facts in this situation, Florida will reject off-shore drilling as they have for decades.’’
Florida Audubon and Natural Resources Defense Council are working with county officials and talking to community leaders, tourism and business leaders to drum up grassroots opposition to counter the effort.
Cannon, who sponsored the previous House proposal, said he has revamped it to “raise the bar” for oil companies.
His first plan allowed drilling as close as three miles from shore. This one, he said, will require keep it at least five miles away and will include stronger provisions to make sure beachgoers can’t see drilling rigs from shore.
He also wants to raise the entry fee for obtaining a lease for exploratory drilling from $1 million in the previous proposal to as much as $5 million, he said.
Haridopolos, the future Senate president, held a town hall meeting in Viera last week on the topic and plans to hold others along the West Coast. He said he and Cannon also are planning trips to Texas and Louisiana — “on our own dime,” he said — to look at the drilling technology.
Daniels, the Florida Energy Associates attorney, said the technology has changed to make it less visible and less intrusive.
Drilling platforms would be easily set up in 60 feet of water, “no closer than six nautical miles and out of sight,’’ and remain for as long as six months so they could drill multiple wells from one location.
Pipelines would then be tethered from subsea production rigs or onshore platforms that extract the oil and gas from the wells, and the oil would be piped onshore to production facilities in Florida or Alabama. No transport tankers would be used, he said. The oil and gas would be stored onshore and then piped to refineries in Louisiana.