MANATEE — Environmentalists, owners of beach businesses and a fishing guide Wednesday angrily denounced a proposal in the Florida Legislature that would allow oil and gas drilling between three and 10 miles offshore.
The proposal would lift Florida’s ban on oil drilling in state waters and allow the governor and Florida Cabinet to seek bidders for exploration and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
It passed on a vote of 17-7 with one absent in the House Policy Council. State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, voted in favor, while Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, voted against. Other local representatives are not on the council.
The idea of extracting oil to generate revenue for the state is counter-productive, said Glenn Compton, director of the environmental group ManaSota-88.
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“Florida’s economy is based on a healthy environment and clean beaches, not oil drilling,” Compton said. “This is the worst legislation we’ve ever seen concerning oil drilling off the coast of Florida. It’s just the height of irresponsibility in the Florida Legislature because we fought for decades for no oil drilling, and now they’re opening oil drilling.”
One spill could wipe out coastal marine wetlands, he said, adding, “We also (would) need additional pipelines and increased refinery capacity, which means potentially we could see an oil refinery, located possibly at Port Manatee.”
Ryan Rolland, an offshore fishing guide for Sarasota’s Outriggers Sportfishing Charters, said offshore drilling would be the worst mistake in the history of Florida legislation.
“I don’t mind 310 miles out,” he said. “But not three to 10. I think everybody wants to go to the beach and see a beautiful sunset. I don’t think they want an oil rig as a backdrop. If there’s any type of oil spill, it would wipe out the beaches. And an oil spill is gonna happen no matter how safe you are.
“I understand the economic value of it, but when you’re talking about the No. 1 tourist visiting state for beaches, I don’t think tourists are going to be too fired up staring at oil rigs and dead sea life,” he added.
The platforms certainly would not improve fishing, he contended. Areas offshore of the panhandle are notorious for oil platforms in over 100 feet of water that holds pelagic such as billfish and wahoo. But on this coast, boaters who head three to 10 miles offshore would be in around 40 feet of water, where they’re much more likely to find kingfish and mangrove snapper — fish that can be found near almost any artificial reef, he said.
Barbara Rodocker, owner of the Silver Surf and Bridgewalk hotels in Bradenton Beach, which overlook an idyllic stretch of sugary sand, said the Gulf is not the place to be drilling for oil.
“This would damage our beaches,” she said. “And it would certainly have a huge effect on the largest industry in Florida — tourism.”
The area’s long stretch of coastline should be protected, argued Gayle Luper, owner of the Bungalow Beach Resort at Anna Maria Island.
“I would say that we are the top tourism destination in the world, having a $57 billion impact on the Florida economy, and we need to protect it,” she said.
“They need to keep the 125-mile limit currently in force,” she added, noting she could not understand why Gov. Charlie Crist and Galvano favored the idea of drilling so close to shore. “But the good news is, in the Senate, at least until next year, it won’t pass,” she predicted.
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who opposes the plan, concurred with her assessment.
“It’s such a huge concept, too quick,” Bennett said Wednesday. “Nobody’s had time to take a look at it.”
The proposed legislation poses an important economic choice for the future, said Mark Davis, chairman of the board for the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce.
“Right now, there’s not enough information about the bill,” he said. “But what the state has to weigh is tourist dollars against oil dollars, because there’s going to come a time when they’re going to have to choose.”
The U.S. need for oil and gas has increased over the years, since 65 percent of oil comes from somewhere else, noted Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which promotes Manatee as a tourist destination.
“We think it’s time everybody sat down in a room and had a rational discussion, before we all start shouting at one another,” he said.
“Do I want oil on my beaches? No,” he added. “I don’t want any oil on my beaches, that’s my position. I don’t think that locks me into a position one way or the other.
“There are good and intelligent people that say we could do this with a minimum of fuss and bother,” White said. “And there are completely rational people who say it can’t be done. Somewhere in the middle there, something has to happen.”
Suzi Fox of the Anna Maria Island Sea Turtle Watch lived in Miami for 10 years and noticed that because of offshore drilling on the east coast, baby sea turtles would come to the beaches covered in tar.
“You’re putting some things out there that shouldn’t be in the middle of the Gulf,” Fox said. “I can’t see any good coming out of this. I am concerned. I’m deeply concerned.
“This is some of the best habitat there is for nesting turtles,” she added. “It’s very discouraging for me because we work so hard at keeping stuff as clean as we can. I can’t believe this is going to have a good impact.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or firstname.lastname@example.org.