Drilling seems low on Legislature's agenda

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House last year voted to allow exploration for oil and natural gas in state waters, but the Senate didn’t bring it up for a vote. This year the issue may not come up for a vote at all — but it will still weigh heavy in the upcoming session’s background.

After a failed last-minute push by drilling advocates in 2009, legislators sent the issue to study groups saying they wanted to be armed with facts when the issue resurfaced.

But budget cuts, property taxes, education and election-year posturing could push offshore drilling down the agenda again in 2010 even if a bill surfaces. Experts don’t expect the issue to go away for good, however.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and a member of the Senate’s Committee on Energy, Environment, and Land Use, predicted offshore drilling will loom large in the background of the upcoming session.

But Constantine said he wouldn’t be surprised if the drilling fight explodes in the Capitol halls again.

“I don’t think anyone would be shocked if drilling did come up this again this year, but it could be the most important issue that isn’t brought up,” said Constantine, who served on Florida’s Energy Commission from 2006 to 2008.

Jaryn Emhom, spokeswoman for Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, agreed.

“It’s hard to say if and when (offshore drilling) will come up, but I don’t think just because it doesn’t come up this session that it’s over,” she said.

“It’s going to be a busy session,” Emhom said. “But the energy debate is a valid debate that has gotten a lot of discussion.”

Existing law prohibits drilling in Florida waters, which extend three miles into the Atlantic Ocean and 10.35 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. The 2009 bill that advanced in the House but not the Senate would have opened Florida waters to drilling as close as three miles from shore.

Environmental groups and many in the tourism industry say the risk of spills and other damage to the state’s famous beaches is too great.

The drilling industry says oil and natural gas exploration would bolster the cash-strapped state’s budget and help the nation achieve energy independence.

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, is optimistic the findings of offshore drilling studies commissioned by the Legislature will ease opposition to oil and natural gas exploration.

“We can demonstrate that we can gain oil and gas resources without significant harm to the tourism or to the ecology in Florida,” he said. “From a proponents point of view, I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic that the ball is moving forward and that something will get done (in 2010).”

If the Legislature doesn’t act this session, Mica pointed to Sen. Mike Haridopolos of Indiatlantic, who is scheduled to become Senate president following the November elections, and House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. Both men have been outspoken advocates of offshore drilling.

“I think the quest to access these oil and natural gas reserves will continue,” Mica said.

But the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum and leading Democratic candidate Alex Sink have held back on the drilling issue.

McCollum said this month that he was “a huge skeptic” of proposals that have come out so far and that the state cannot afford a major oil spill 10 miles from it’s beaches.

Sink has said she opposes offshore drilling.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist opposed offshore drilling before gas prices spiked in 2008 and Crist announced he would consider drilling Florida waters.

Earlier this month, Crist said he still supports the idea. This is Crist’s final year as governor — he is running for the U.S. Senate.

“What we need to do as a state is keep open-minded about it,” he said. “As I’ve said repeatedly, as long as its far enough, clean enough and safe enough and could create a greater independence, if you will, as it relates to Florida’s dependence and America’s dependence on foreign oil then we ought to keep open-minded to it and look for it.”