BY LUCY MORGAN and MARY ELLEN KLAS
Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Dangling the promise of millions for the state’s dwindling budget, a group of mostly unidentified oil and gas companies are bankrolling a last-minute fight to bring offshore drilling to Florida’s coastline.
Florida Energy Associates LLC, a corporation formed in December by Daytona Beach lawyer Doug Daniels, has hired at least 20 of the state’s most prominent lobbyists to push bills through the legislature in the final week of session. Most of the lobbyists were hired in the last 10 days, but the proposal has been planned for months.
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The measure, slated for votes in the House and Senate this week, would give the governor and Cabinet authority to approve oil and gas exploration three to 10 miles off the Florida coast.
The sudden appearance of the issue near the end of a troubled legislative session has sparked outrage from environmental groups and Democrats in both houses who question why it surfaced with little time for discussion and debate.
Gov. Charlie Crist initially said he was willing to look at the measure but has since questioned the way lawmakers have rushed the bill through.
“Whenever you do something like that, you want to make sure that it’s well thought out, that it’s done in a very deliberate manner and that people have an opportunity to review it in a reasonable way,” Crist said Friday.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and Chief Finance Officer Alex Sink have joined the fray, denouncing the proposal and saying they can’t believe any Florida lawmaker would seriously consider letting oil drilling occur so close to the state’s priceless beaches.
Nelson contends there is not enough oil available to justify the environmental risk.
Supporters of the bill say Nelson’s view of oil drilling is outdated because new technology would allow drilling without unsightly offshore rigs and little danger of oil spills.
The group intends to use a seismic tool that uses satellite technology to pinpoint oil and gas reserves, said M. Lance Phillips, a Texas lawyers who is a principal partner in Florida Energy Associates. He said the investors believe Florida’s potential includes “several major oil fields,” within the Gulf of Mexico.
Once the plan is approved, Phillips said a test well could be drilled within 10 days, and oil tapped within 18 months.
Associated Industries of Florida, the state’s most prominent business lobbying group, is leading the fight for the bill, but no one will identify all of those who are paying for an expensive lobbying and public relations campaign that now includes television and newspaper advertising.
Phillips of Mexia, Texas, and Dallas lawyer William Lewis Sessions appeared before a House committee considering the issue last week. Phillips owns Oil and Gas Acquisitions, an independent oil and gas exploration company, and is the chairman of the Limestone County Republican Party. Sessions, the son of former FBI Director William Sessions and brother of Texas congressman Pete Sessions, represents oil company clients, as well as the Cherokee Indians of Texas.
Daniels, the Daytona Beach lawyer who formed the corporation, says others helping finance the campaign “prefer not to have the notoriety.”
“They prefer not to have other people in the oil business know they are looking in Florida,” Daniels said Saturday.
Daniels said his group filed the original Van Zant bill earlier this year. That bill (H1219) would have directed the Department of Environmental Protection to come up with a plan for developing offshore oil reserves. That bill was expanded last week with an amendment filed by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
Cannon said he decided to push the issue late in the session after Associated Industries President Barney Bishop approached him a few weeks ago.
“For a long time, offshore oil drilling was the third rail, we didn’t talk about it,” Cannon said. “But when gas prices spiked last summer I thought about it and the hazard of not having our own supply.”
Ron Sachs Communications went to work for Daniels’ corporation two weeks ago after initially meeting with the group in December. Sachs, a former communications director for Gov. Lawton Chiles who opposed offshore drilling, said the individuals behind the move are small, independent men and women and not big companies, but he refused to identify them.
“There is a lot more suspicion about this than there should be,” Sachs insisted. “These are Americans who hope Florida will allow oil and gas exploration.”
Sachs refused to say how much money is being spent for advertising and public relations, economic analysis and a pollster, but he said that drilling could provide the state with enough revenue to resolve many of its budget shortfalls.
Lobbyists hired to fight for the bill include the team at Southern Strategy Group, which includes former House Speaker John Thrasher; Holland & Knight lobbyist Martha Barnett; former Secretary of State Jim Smith and Wade Hopping.
Although all lobbyists will have to disclose the fees they are earning in quarterly reports, only one of them would answer questions about fees for the oil drilling bill. Smith said he had been asked to help and signed a year long contract for $10,000 a month.
Cannon said he is not troubled by the fact that financial supporters of the measure have refused to be identified.
“It’s a policy discussion,” Cannon said. “It’s the right way to move the conversation forward.”