Only a lucky break kept oil from the historic BP spill in 2010 away from the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida’s beaches.
Though the spill happened off the coast of Louisiana, so much oil gushed from the blowout that it reached the Loop Current, which is part of the Gulf Stream. Normally, the current would have brought the oil far enough to reach South Florida after blackening beaches in the Panhandle.
Fortunately, the current shifted. By July, BP had capped the well. “People had good reason to worry,” a federal oceanographer said in July of that year. “It seems we’ve kind of dodged a bullet.”
Yet oil lobbyists and Congress are firing again. Congressional Republicans want to open more of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling. President Trump, who favors more exploration for fossil fuels, is empowering them.
Never miss a local story.
2022 The year a federal law ends that bans drilling within at least 125 miles of Florida’s Gulf coast and 235 miles in some places.
Since 2006, federal law has banned drilling within at least 125 miles of Florida’s Gulf coast and 235 miles in some places. That moratorium expires in 2022. Last spring, however, Trump signed an executive order seeking more drilling options. The recent focus has been on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but oil companies also want to open up the eastern Gulf. The American Petroleum Institute predicts “thousands of jobs” and “billions” in new federal revenue.
That sounds like the typical hype from the oil industry. We do know that many thousands of jobs and many billions of dollars are tied to Florida’s tourism industry, an industry that depends in large part on the state’s beaches.
Expanded drilling would increase the danger to those beaches. The BP spill happened just 42 miles offshore and stained beaches from Texas to Florida. With closer drilling also would come more seismic testing that could disrupt commercial and sport fishing. A spill could decimate the state’s oyster industry centered on Apalachicola Bay.
The Defense Department also opposes any change. The eastern Gulf is the U.S. military’s largest training facility. That stretch of coastal Florida includes Eglin Air Force Base, Pensacola Naval Air Station, MacDill Air Force Base and Key West Naval Air Station.
In May, Undersecretary of Defense Anthony Kurta laid out the Pentagon’s position in a letter to U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose district includes Pensacola. The moratorium, Kurta wrote, ensures that “vital military readiness activities may be conducted without interference … The moratorium is essential for developing and sustaining our nation’s future combat capabilities.”
Though Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, has been the most active and successful state lawmaker on this issue, Florida’s congressional delegation long has expressed bipartisan support for the drilling moratorium. In 2006, when the GOP controlled the Senate, Nelson’s partner in the legislation was Mel Martinez, a Republican. Marco Rubio has joined Nelson in pushing to extend the moratorium until 2027.
So if the state opposes any change, and if the Pentagon opposes any change and the wider public — according to the polls — opposes any change in drilling policy, how could change happen anyway?
Through legislative maneuvering, bills to expand drilling in the eastern Gulf that have failed on their own could pass as part of a budget deal.
The answer lies in the budget and tax negotiations among Republicans. Through legislative maneuvering, bills to expand drilling in the eastern Gulf that have failed on their own could pass as part of a budget deal.
The action is happening within the two natural resource committees, with the Senate taking the lead. The chairwoman is Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She has long wanted to open more of the Arctic for drilling. Alaskans would get a share of the revenue, as they have from drilling in Prudhoe Bay. Also on the committee is Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a state the oil industry essentially controls.
Senate leaders have told those committees to find $1 billion in revenue to help offset the cost of tax cuts that mostly would help wealthy Americans. Projected oil revenue — however phony — could provide cover. The final budget bill would require only a majority vote.
It’s Washington at its worst — bad policy done badly. The Natural Resources Defense Council points out that simply enforcing lease payments on non-producing wells could raise $750 million. Trump also has lowered the royalty rates on oil leases.
The president is compounding the potential threat to Florida by proposing that the government weaken safety rules for oil drilling. Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who also served 18 years in the Senate, co-chaired the panel that investigated the BP spill. In July, Graham and co-chairman William Reilly wrote in The New York Times that Trump opposes a rule that tightened regulations on blowout preventers. Such a rule, Graham and Reilly wrote, could have prevented the BP spill.
Trump’s fossil-fuel policy is misguided in many ways, but the threat to Florida is especially scary. The state’s congressional delegation must block any attempt to move oil drilling closer to our coast.