Special Reports

Politicans go into overdrive over spill

TALLAHASSEE — The political rallying cry is no longer drill baby drill. It’s spill, baby, spill.

Faster than oil slicks spreading on water, Florida’s top politicians have spent the past few days jockeying for media attention, performing flyovers of the spill in the Gulf and decrying the impact of the calamity on the Sunshine State.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the U.S. Senate as an independent, severed all ties to his previous statements extolling the virtues of oil drilling as a way to lower gas prices as long as it was done cleanly and safely. On Monday, he declared that any talk of drilling off Florida’s coast should “cease and desist.”

Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum, running for governor, traveled to Mobile on Sunday to meet with other attorneys general to discuss legal steps necessary to lay blame for the massive oil leak.

And Democrat Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, also running for governor, headed to Pensacola Monday for a briefing on the oil spill by emergency operations officials and recommendations of ways the state can better respond.

“Those proposals need to be totally off the table forever more,” Sink said.

She called on the federal government to push BP PLC to create an immediate cash fund for local governments and small businesses to use and she urged small businesses to prepare their records to submit damage claims properly.

All three politicians held separate press conferences before cameras at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee to deplore the threat to Florida’s tourism industry.

“I’ve always said as long as it was far enough, clean enough and safe enough that it would be something that I’d be willing to look at,” Crist said. “This is not far enough, this is not safe enough, and it sure as heck is not clean enough. I mean, it’s not good enough — period. So given that, I think all bets are off.”

That’s a far cry from a 2008 statement he made while campaigning to be the Republican running mate for presidential candidate John McCain. Then, Crist said he’d support oil drilling if it could be done safely and “if that could, in fact, help us to lower the price of gas at the pump, then we need to study it.”

At the federal level, too, politicians jumped onto the issue. U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who has disagreed with the governor’s support of oil drilling, joined the U.S. Coast Guard for briefings in Mobile and then flew over the spill.

“I cannot overstate the need for urgency and priority in capping the well,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said she was disappointed she didn’t get the entire delegation to sign a letter to Obama, opposing oil drilling in the wake of the crisis. Several members of Congress, including Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said they’re writing their own letters to Obama.

In Tallahassee, Democratic candidate for Agriculture Commissioner Scott Maddox used the issue to take aim at his opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam.

“I think it’s astounding that four days after the explosion, Adam Putnam was reaffirming his position in favor of offshore and near-shore oil drilling,” Maddox said, asking all candidates for the Florida Cabinet to sign a pledge to oppose oil drilling off the coast.

Putnam, who had previously said he was “generally supportive of opening those areas’’ to drilling, responded by saying he is “deeply concerned about the economic and ecological damage’’ and accused Maddox of “complete ignorance of the issues in this race.”

The political statements are bittersweet, environmentalists say.

“Everything the [environmental] advocates warned about is happening,” said Susan Glickman, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

She said they hope the disaster brings an end to a legislative proposal to allow oil drilling between three and 10 miles off Florida’s coasts and focuses new attention on efforts to develop alternative fuels.

“The legislators who stood in the way of moving to clean renewable energy are going to have something to answer for,” she said. “It’s no longer an abstract conversation and now we’re seeing the results,”

Crist, who this year dropped his push for a requirement that state utility companies be required to use a percentage of renewable energy, said the oil spill should serve as a lesson.

“This is the resurrection of the clean energy argument without a doubt in my mind,” Crist told reporters Monday. “You’ve got to have solar. We’ve got to move more rapidly to develop wind, nuclear as well. If this does not make the case that we’ve got to have energy resources that are clean, that don’t disrupt our environment, I don’t know what is.”

Herald/Times staff writers Marc Caputo, Lee Logan, Cristina Silva and Lesley Clark contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.