State Politics

Florida politicians rethinking drilling push

The oil spill spreading across the Gulf of Mexico is sending ripples through Florida and national politics, giving Gov. Charlie Crist a reason to rethink his support for offshore drilling.

Crist told reporters Tuesday that any politician who backs drilling off the Florida coast should reconsider it in light of the spill, which has now spread over an area about 48 miles long and 80 miles wide.

“If this doesn’t give somebody pause, there’s something wrong,” Crist said. “This is, as I understand it, a pretty new rig with modern technology. As I’ve always said it would need to be far enough, clean enough and safe enough. I’m not sure this was far enough. I’m pretty sure it was not clean enough. And it doesn’t sound like it was safe

enough. It’s not a great situation.”

The Legislature’s main advocate of drilling, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, agreed that the disaster had him asking questions.

“It causes me to want to examine what happened and how it could have been prevented and we need to figure that out before we make any further decisions,” said Cannon, who has proposed allowing rigs as close as three miles off Florida’s beaches.

Before the spill, Cannon had promised to bring the drilling proposal back up when he becomes speaker next year, touting the millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs that would be created by near-shore drilling.

But Attorney General Bill McCollum, a fellow Republican now running for governor, said Cannon should forget passing that bill in 2011 because “he’ll face a veto on my desk if he brings it up the way it is now. I know it’s a revenue producer, but that’s not a good enough reason.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, the spill “is going to have a chilling effect” on a plan by President Obama to open up the eastern gulf to drilling, predicted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.: “It’s another reminder of the risks of offshore drilling.”

And the senator welcomed Crist back, after the governor in 2008 said he had become more open to the possibility of drilling off Florida. Nelson said he was “very glad the governor realized the realities of what an oil spill could do to the beaches of the Florida coast.”

The oil, which has been oozing out at a rate estimated at 42,000 gallons a day, is coming from the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig, owned by the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, Transocean Inc.

Deepwater Horizon exploded about 11 p.m. on April 20 and later sank. Eleven members of the 126-member crew remain missing and are presumed dead. The cause of the explosion at the rig, which was under contract to BP, remains under investigation.

Efforts to close off the leak using robot submarines have so far failed. Other options for ending the leak could take longer — up to three months, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials.

The marshes of southern Louisiana and Mississippi appear to face the most immediate risk from the spill because they are closest to it, oceanographers say. However, if the leaking oil drifts far enough east to get caught in the gulf’s powerful loop current, it could wind up coating beaches in the Florida Keys and then be swept north along the state’s Atlantic coast.

New Jersey Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg say the spill calls into question the credibility of safety claims by the oil industry. Their letter, citing government figures, say that since 2006 there have been 509 fires on rigs in the gulf, resulting in at least two fatalities and 12 serious injuries — all prior to Deepwater Horizon.

“Big Oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline drilling is a completely safe endeavor, but accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth,” the two senators said.

Despite the spill, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday that President Barack Obama is still sticking to his plan to open up part of the eastern gulf and areas of the Atlantic seaboard to oil drilling.

At an April 2 news conference, Obama touted the oil industry’s safety record: “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”

Other longtime advocates of opening up the eastern gulf to drilling, such as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, were unavailable for comment on the oil spill, according to their spokesmen. National radio hosts who had publicly in favor of drilling have been generally silent on the topic since the spill.