The Why's Guy

If offshore drilling is a must, make it benefit us

Floridians are focused on the wrong question when it comes to drilling for oil and gas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Forget the "if."

We're inching closer to drilling each day.

The president wants it.

The governor wants it.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is onboard.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is interested.

In some polls, 70 percent of the American people want it.

About 60 percent of Floridians are in favor of it.

The question we need to answer is: What will we do with the windfall?

In March, an auction of drilling leases in the central gulf drew about $3.7-billion in bids. The oil-producing states along the gulf split 37.5 percent of the take — about $1.39-billion — with shares determined in part by proximity to the leased parcels.

So how much could we collect? The area being targeted is closest to Florida, and it's larger than the parcels offered in March.

A half a billion? No sweat.

A billion? Maybe.

Do we want our legislators rolling in that dough?

No.

Federal law limits how the money can be spent. Hurricane protection is on the list.

One billion dollars could provide $2,000 grants to 500,000 Florida homeowners to help buy hurricane shutters.

But let's push the envelope: Is insurance hurricane protection? (The answer is likely no, but our Legislature has proved adept at shifting funds around. Remember the lottery and schools?)

How much would $1-billion help Citizens Property Insurance Corp.? It would have wiped out more than half the deficit Citizens racked up in the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. Floridians are "helping" to pay off that debt through surcharges on insurance policies.

But why continue a policy that has all of us helping to insure the state's highest-risk properties?

Let's be bold and consider whether the windfall could help launch a program such as the Florida Reinsurance Corp. that has been proposed by a group from St. Petersburg. All Floridians would get hurricane insurance from the new entity. Let it sell fire and theft policies, too.

The idea scares opponents of "big government." In 2006, then-Gov. Jeb Bush said the thought of a state-run insurance program selling policies directly to Floridians gave him the "heebie-jeebies." He preferred making it easier for new insurance companies to enter the Florida market to boost competition.

What should give us the heebie-jeebies is that when he said that, Citizens was already the largest wind insurance company in the state. What should make us shudder is the idea that those new insurance companies will simply fold if a big storm hits — leaving homeowners anything but high and dry.

Even if you believe our Legislature wants to help, it's hard to believe anything from Tallahassee will help. Insurance companies have better lawyers, accountants and consultants than the Legislature who are paid to find profitable alternatives.

It's time to be decisive. We can't wait around hoping the federal government starts a national catastrophe fund. If we must accept gulf drilling, let's make it work for us.

Maybe showing we're serious will entice insurance companies to help find a compromise that works.

But I'm willing to bet that I'll be driving a fuel-cell-powered car long before that happens.

Times staff writer Kyle Kreiger rants about the serious and silly with one question in mind: Why? Contact him at kreiger@sptimes.com.

If offshore drilling is a must, make it benefit us 08/06/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2008 3:48pm]

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