WASHINGTON — While oil washing up on Florida Panhandle beaches from the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico captivates the state's attention, it has also turned a long-standing debate over the hazards and rewards of offshore drilling into a hot-button political issue with a long reach in Florida.
Just three weeks before the spill, President Barack Obama proposed opening a vast tract to energy exploration directly in the path of a powerful loop current that carries water from the Gulf of Mexico to the East Coast.
Since the spill, Obama has put that plan on hold by suspending for six months new energy exploration in deep waters along the nation's coastline. Obama's future policy may be swayed by the findings of a special commission co-chaired by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham.
Yet once the nation's largest spill is contained, pressures to drill are bound to resume as the energy industry and its allies in Congress press to meet the rising demand for oil and natural gas. Florida's next senator likely will play a prominent role in that debate.
Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate, reflects those who want to learn from this disaster, take safety precautions and move ahead to tap coastal waters. He is intent on making the United States less dependent on foreign oil, especially from nations like Venezuela that have strained relations with this country.
The energy industry has reinforced Rubio's position with $44,400 in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.
Democrat Kendrick Meek sees the spill as a warning of worse disasters to come if drilling is allowed to spread. He is touting his long-standing opposition to near-shore drilling, hoping voter revulsion to the spill will carry him to the Senate.
Meek has received just $5,900 from oil and gas interests during the 2009-10 campaign.
Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent Senate candidate, reflects Floridians who once welcomed the prospect of jobs and revenue from a growing energy industry but have become disillusioned by the spill and its impact on tourism. Crist has received $13,600 from the energy industry.
Crist has gone from receptiveness to drilling near Florida to trying to ban it forever. He has called for a constitutional ban on drilling in state waters, which extend 10 miles from the gulf shore.
The current spill defeated the notion that drilling comes without risk, but it leaves the political question of whether the need and reward are so great that the risk is worth taking.
"It's going to be hard to wean ourselves from oil," acknowledged Frank Muller-Karger, an oceanographer and expert on gulf currents at the University of South Florida. "People want cheap gas and don't want to import from other nations."
"But we need to better understand the risks," Muller-Karger said. "If there's a spill and it enters the loop current, it will spread the mess much farther, quicker. We in Florida would be in the same situation that Louisiana is in right now. The areas closer to the spill will get the worst of it almost always."
Whoever wins the Senate race will find a toxic political environment on Capitol Hill, where pressures to drill are relentless but opposition has hardened.