Gulf Drilling Dealt Another Blow as Session Approaches

By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida
By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida


Once seen as a done deal with support from House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos as they were coming to power, expanded off-shore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico may have been made even less likely Wednesday by a White House decision not to allow any new oil drilling in federal waters the eastern Gulf.

The decision Wednesday was a reversal of an announcement from President Barack Obama prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill this summer that drilling would be expanded. Since that accident however, there has not been much talk in Tallahassee about a proposal that during last session the talk of the town.

Both Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist pondered Wednesday whether the federal decision would extend the silence over the controversial proposal in the capital city.

“Some of us have been fighting to keep oil rigs away from Florida for more than three decades now,” Nelson said in a statement lauding the White House decision. “As I’ve said – and long before the BP spill - just one accident could ruin Florida’s tourism economy and our unique environment, not to mention the Everglades. I hope Florida’s new governor and Legislature will see through the oil industry’s false promises about safety, jobs and revenues, and do what’s needed to protect the state.”

Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s transition team did not comment on the announcement Wednesday. But outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist, who said often he supported drilling that was “safe enough, far enough, clean enough” when he was a Republican, more confidently predicted Wednesday the announcement might be the final blow for a legislative proposal that would have allowed drilling as close as three miles off-shore.

"I think the administration should be credited, again, for trying to protect Florida's beaches," Crist said, praising the decision. “To be clean and green as we go forward as a state and nation is only good for Florida."

Crist said the announcement should blunt any push to revive the drilling proposal next year by the same lawmakers that ended a special session minutes after it began this summer rather than approve a constitutional amendment outlawing drilling. Cannon and Haridopolos, who both have said the Deepwater Horizon disaster changes their opinions of the drilling proposal, have said they will not seek approval for near-shore drilling during their two-year terms at the helm of the Florida Legislature.

"I think it sends a very clear signal that there's an attitude toward protecting Florida's beaches and the eastern Gulf of Mexico," Crist said. "Not only is it important, certainly to the environment, but also for Florida's economy. I've seen an awful lot of people in the hotel and restaurant industry over the past six months, and they were very concerned when the spill occurred and very pleased when it didn’t directly affect our beaches."

But Haridopolos, who addressed an environmental summit this summer to proclaim that he and Cannon had been wrong about the drilling proposal, called the decision Wednesday “a flip-flop by President Obama…that will hurt America’s economy.”

“Extending the ban will also do nothing to lessen America’s dependency on foreign oil,” Haridopolos said in a statement provided to the News Service of Florida. “While now is not the time to open up new drilling because of this summer’s Gulf oil spill, taking it off-the-table is irresponsible. We must ensure that innovative technology guarantees safe drilling and would not impact Florida’s environment or tourism industry. When safe drilling is available, we have an obligation to provide for the long-term economic well-being of our country and state.”

“It’s another example of a job-killing policy led by the President and, unfortunately, embraced by Sen. Bill Nelson,” Haridopolos also said, taking a clear swipe at the senator he rumored to be considering challenging in 2012.

A spokesman for Cannon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Speaking with reporters shortly after making the announcement Wednesday, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defended the decision, saying it was the product of the review promised by Obama in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

“We’re announcing the next step in long-term planning of responsible oil exploration and laying out a plan for safely and responsibly developing the nation’s offshore oil drilling in the right way, in the right areas,” Salazar said.

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