Special Reports

Florida coast to stay closed to oil drilling

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is reversing its decision to push for oil and gas exploration off Florida’s coastline, recalibrating its offshore drilling strategy in the wake of last spring’s devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Under the new policy, announced Wednesday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Florida’s Atlantic coastline and the eastern Gulf of Mexico will remain closed to drilling at least through 2017. Instead, the agency will focus on areas already leased for drilling, including 43 million acres in the western and central Gulf.

“As a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill we learned a number of lessons, most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime,” Salazar said.

The decision marks a reversal for the administration’s energy plan which was released just weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers, drowned wildlife and fouled beaches across the Gulf Coast.

The original plan -- widely seen as an effort to lure Republicans to support now-derailed climate change legislation -- could have led to oil and gas exploration as close as 125 miles off Florida’s west coast. On the Atlantic side, the Outer Continental Shelf from Delaware to Central Florida could have been open to drilling. South Florida’s coast would have remained protected.

Gas and oil industry officials blasted the White House, saying the retrenchment will slow U.S. manufacturing and cost a weak economy jobs. But for environmentalists -- and Democrats in Florida facing potentially strong political headwinds heading into 2012 -- the decision was hailed as a win for Florida’s tourism-dependent economy.

“It’s good the president is listening to the people of Florida,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, an avowed drilling opponent who is already facing a crowded field of Republicans looking to challenge him in 2012.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, also supported ban on drilling through 2017.

“I commend President Obama for coming to this decision,” said Buchanan in a statement. “As you know, I have consistently opposed offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico because Florida’s unique environment must be protected, and our economy relies heavily on tourism. We learned this painful lesson from the tragic BP oil spill, whose effects are still being felt in southwest Florida even though no oil ever washed up on our shores.”

Environmental groups applauded the decision, but cautioned that both legislative chambers in Tallahassee are led by lawmakers who have supported oil drilling even closer to shore.

“We’re glad the White House has correctly judged the risks to our state to be too high,” Phil Compton, the Sierra Club’s Gulf Coast organizer said, adding that “while the eastern Gulf is off limits for now, we must still watch for a move in Tallahassee to open state waters to nearshore drilling.”

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who last spring pulled his support for oil drilling in Florida waters after the oil spill, called Obama’s change of heart a “flip-flop.”

Still, Haridopolos, who had said the BP oil spill would “permanently’’ chill plans for oil drilling, is keeping the door open for drilling.

“When safe drilling is available,” he said in a statement, “We have an obligation to provide for the long-term economic well-being of our country and state.”

Incoming Gov. Rick Scott -- who met Wednesday with Nelson and other Florida lawmakers and is to meet with President Barack Obama Thursday at the White House -- said he “absolutely” opposes the decision to pull back.

“I believe we have to become energy independent,” Scott told reporters at the Capitol. “Offshore drilling is an option.”