Area legislators, business owners oppose drilling

MANATEE — Local legislators and business owners are worried the latest push to open Florida’s Gulf Coast to oil drilling might harm the environment and tourism industry.

Legislation was introduced this week by senators from two oil-producing states that would bring oil drilling to within 45 miles of the coast.

Sponsoring Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, D-La., say their proposal would benefit states such as Florida by giving them a 37.5 percent cut of revenues from offshore oil and natural gas production.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has threatened to filibuster similar legislation, and other local lawmakers also fear the impact of offshore drilling.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said he supports drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge but would oppose efforts to open up Florida’s Gulf coast to drilling.

“Drilling off the eastern Gulf of Mexico ... would threaten our natural resources and jeopardize our tourism-based economy,” he said in a statement.

Because of a 2006 compromise, drilling is banned in federally controlled waters close to the state’s coast until 2022. The proposed legislation would void that law.

The federal push for expanded drilling comes after a failed attempt by state legislators to allow some offshore drilling. In April, the Florida House approved a proposal that would have given the governor and the Cabinet authority to approve oil and gas exploration three to 10 miles off the Florida coast. That bill died in the Senate.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said additional oil exploration would take the focus off creating a policy of renewable energy.

“I don’t believe that we’ll ever drill our way to renewable energy,” he said. “Anything that we do in the Gulf of Mexico only delays the inevitable.”

Bennett predicted there will be a bigger push for the bill next session, but said he thinks it will again get killed sometime during the process.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, voted against the proposal this year. He said the country doesn’t have enough infrastructure such as refineries to turn additional oil exploration into lower gasoline prices. He also fears a negative impact on the environment and tourism.

“The risk is not worth the reward given all these negative factors,” he said.

Several local business owners dependent on tourism said oil spills and unsightly derricks could deter potential visitors.

“I think it would be the worst thing that ever happened,” said Don Meilner, owner of Capt. Don’s Cruises. “Even if you can’t see the wells, just the threat of a spill gives me the willies.”

Environmentalists are concerned that additional offshore drilling would threaten marine animals such as dolphins, manatees or birds.

“Oil spills happen, and they cause major stress to marine life,” said Jackie Savitz, director of the environmental group Oceana’s climate and energy campaign.

Savitz doubts that the revenue-sharing provision would change the minds of skeptical lawmakers: “There are a number of lawmakers that are pretty strongly opposed to offshore drilling. I don’t think they’re necessarily going to be bought off by revenue-sharing.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has authored a similar drilling provision that opens up drilling within 45 miles off the coast but does not include revenue sharing. Savitz said if that provision is added to a climate change bill that could be debated in the Senate this fall, her organization would oppose the legislation.

“It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘We’re going to solve climate change and here’s how we’re going to do it: Drill more,’” she said.