MIAMI -- One year later, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history looks more and more like just a big bump in the road in the drive to drill deeper in the Gulf of Mexico and potentially closer to Florida’s coastline.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 rig workers, spewed 60,000 barrels of oil a day for four months, cost five states billions of dollars in lost jobs and business, slimed marshes, beaches and wildlife from the Louisiana bayou to the Florida Panhandle, and left lingering toxic stains across complex food webs that scientists say will take years to fathom.
A presidential commission report, issued in January, blamed just about every aspect of the offshore drilling industry -- lapdog federal regulators, safety shortcuts by the British oil giant BP and its contractors and a high-risk “wildcat culture” that pushed companies into more dangerous depths without capable backup containment options.
Yet in the months since the anxious, ugly summer of the monster slick, the political tide and public opinion seem to have shifted. One recent poll suggests growing support in Florida for drilling. A slew of proposals to tighten regulations or hike fees and fines on the industry have stalled in Congress. The Obama administration has slowly cracked open the Gulf door but -- a week before the April 20 anniversary of the blowout -- a House committee passed three bills pushing faster and wider access.
“Some of the members of Congress are acting as though the Deepwater Horizon well oil spill never happened,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters.
For environmentalists, scientists and other critics of the offshore drilling industry who had hoped to see drilling bans or sweeping reforms, the turnabout is disappointing and unexpected.
“Some people have gotten amnesia and washed their hands of any responsibility for action,” said Bob Graham, the former Democratic Florida governor and senator who co-chaired the presidential commission.
He’s worried that the talk of further expansion in the Gulf could renew efforts to drill off Florida’s coast, though nothing formal is on the table at the moment. “The idea that we’re going to reverse 60 years of protection of our waters is incredible, and incredibly stupid,” he said.
The oil industry and its supporters argue the rich reserves of the Gulf are too vital not to pursue, as long as precautions are adopted to reduce risks. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, echoing many Republican colleagues, insisted the spill should not stand in the way of increasing domestic exploration.
“We need to recognize the BP oil spill as an extraordinary disaster,” Rubio said, “but it should not force us to adopt an energy strategy that keeps us addicted to foreign oil.”
But Rubio does support a congressional moratorium that now keeps rigs 125 miles from the Panhandle and 235 miles from Florida’s west coast.
Crafted by fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, it expires in 2022, but some fear the boundary line could be redrawn or even erased before then.
The debate over offshore drilling has undergone a slow sea change shaped by numerous factors, including public perception that the spill wasn’t the apocalyptic environmental catastrophe initially feared, a mid-term landslide of Republicans and tea partiers vowing to cut regulatory red-tape and environmental restrictions, lobbying by a powerful energy industry, and rising prices at the gas pump.
A poll by Quinnipiac University this month, for example, found Floridians’ views have changed significantly since July, when BP was fitting an experimental cap on the gusher after months of struggle. A majority now support expanded drilling -- 60 percent, up from 42 percent.
The oil industry views the result as an endorsement of its campaign to open the Gulf’s last real frontier: the waters off Florida, particularly the rich reserves estimated to exist under the vast federally controlled territory of the Eastern Gulf, the least explored region in the entire basin. Federal waters begin 10.3 miles out in the Gulf and at three miles in the Atlantic. The state controls everything closer.
“Each day away from the tragedy saw a resurgence of support,” said Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council.
In Tallahassee, state Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, both drilling proponents, pledged before this year’s session not to consider drilling proposals for at least two years.
But Mica does not see that as a death knell. After all, two years ago the Florida House responded to a campaign by oil lobbyists with overwhelming approval of legislation that would have lifted a 20-year ban and allowed rigs in state waters.
“Florida has stepped back, but I would assess it as a pause,” Mica said. “Not this session, but we still want it.”
Nelson -- the strongest advocate in Congress for keeping rigs far from the coast -- and environmentalists dismiss the Quinnipiac poll, calling it misleading because it failed to include critical information: where the drilling might be, 100 miles from shore or within sight of beaches.
“These polls are always going to bounce around,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “There are a lot of intangibles, starting with the cost of gas.”
In Washington, the Obama administration has adopted what Salazar called a “thoughtful and deliberate approach” to reopening the Gulf, with a new oversight agency and new safety measures -- notably, one mandating that the industry develop deep-water containment systems for worst-case blowouts like the one that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig.
“We’ve made huge progress on reform over the last year,” said Salazar, but he admitted it was only a start to ensure that drilling occurs in a “safe and environmentally friendly way,” particularly at the extreme depths the industry increasingly targets.
In October, the White House lifted the drilling ban it imposed after the BP spill but didn’t start issuing new permits until last month, approving 10 new deep water wells so far, with 15 more in the pipeline.
The administration also agreed to open new territory for exploration by selling new leases -- but only in the already heavily drilled Central and Western Gulf.
For drilling foes, that change was a major victory. Practically speaking, it took coveted areas such as the Destin Dome, a gas-rich area in the Gulf near the Panhandle, off the table until at least 2017 when the next round of leases are scheduled for bidding.
But the oil industry has blasted the go-slow policy as a job-killing “de facto moratorium.” Lawmakers from Gulf states with strong economic ties to offshore operations echo the complaints, contending new rules are overkill.
The three bills approved by a House committee this past week don’t target Florida waters specifically but lawmakers potentially could use them as tools to carve out prime areas for drilling or shrink or lift the moratorium.
Nelson, who helped engineer the bipartisan 2006 deal with Sen. Mel Martinez, Rubio’s predecessor, that maintained the drilling buffer until 2022, said he won’t be surprised to see more efforts to pry open the Eastern Gulf.
“As gas prices get closer to $4, you will have a lot of members of Congress that are basically spokespeople for the industry, they will increasingly make that argument,” he said.
For now, with the House and Senate controlled by different parties, it’s doubtful any drilling bill can make it out of Congress.
In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989, lawmakers passed sweeping new laws raising the financial liability of oil companies, expanding cleanup demands and improving the strength of tanker hulls. This time, they’ve done nothing, said David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society.
Every effort at reforms -- including adopting the recommendations of the presidential commission -- has reached a stalemate along party lines.
There’s still hope for a measure to devote billions of dollars in BP fines to restoring a marshy Louisiana coast that was declining for decades under the assault of erosion and pollution. But even that is fading.
“Last year, we described BP as irresponsible and negligent,” Yarnold said. “Well, the same words can describe Congress. It’s time to put politics aside and do the right thing for the Gulf.”
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For now, Nelson and most environmentalists believe the ban on Florida’s federal waters can survive political pressure and maneuvering.
“President Obama would have to lose and Bill Nelson would have to lose and they’d have to be replaced by people who want to remove that boundary,” said Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “I don’t think that is going to happen.”
A more serious threat, they say, is the possibility of a future Florida Legislature opening up state-controlled waters. That move that would make it politically difficult to justify a continuing federal ban.
A coalition of environmental groups, Save Our Seas, Beaches and Shores, launched a petition drive after the 2009 House vote to put a ban on drilling in state waters into the Florida Constitution. Former Gov. Charlie Crist’s effort to do the same thing during a special legislative session last July proved dead on arrival.
So far, Fuller acknowledged, only a few thousands signatures have been gathered through an online site, far short of the nearly 700,000 needed.
In February, Crist’s former chief financial officer, Alex Sink, who lost the governor’s race to Scott, agreed to co-chair the petition drive with the goal of getting an amendment proposal on the ballot by 2012 or, more realistically, the following year.
Fuller doesn’t anticipate lawmakers trying to ram through a divisive drilling bill in the near future but “that is one reason why we want it in the Constitution. We don’t want to see it as a possibility at all.”
(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.
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