TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott found himself on both sides of the fence Tuesday when he told a Tallahassee audience that he supports oil drilling in the Everglades, then hours later issued a clarification that he didn't mean "an expansion of drilling."
Scott's remarks to the Economics Club of Florida were prompted by an audience member who asked whether the governor agreed with Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann's call last week for oil drilling in the Everglades for "additional energy."
"You know we already have drilling in the Everglades. We already have oil wells in the Everglades," Scott replied. "There's a road in Naples called 'Oil Well Road,' so we already have oil drilling. We've had it since 1943."
He noted that most Floridians are "very shocked" to learn that drilling is happening in Florida. He added that "I think we have to be very cautious if there's going to be any more drilling."
The comments unleashed immediate warnings from environmentalists, who have fought for decades to shield South Florida's crucial watershed from additional oil drilling as they attempt to restore the Everglades ecosystem.
"My suggestion to the governor is quite simple: Don't go there," said Kirk Fordham, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation, the nonprofit agency formed to advocate for protection of the state's River of Grass.
"Unless Gov. Scott wants to unleash a firestorm of opposition from hunters, fishermen, conservationists and millions of Floridians who depend on the Everglades for their water supply, he should abandon any notion of encouraging drilling in this sacred place."
Within hours, the Governor's Office issued a clarification of his statement, retreating from any suggestion that Scott's remarks could be implied as supportive of additional drilling in the Everglades.
"Gov. Scott has not called for an expansion of drilling in the Everglades," said Amy Graham, deputy communications secretary. "That discussion is not on the table."
The issue has traditionally been a tricky one for presidential candidates in Florida. In 2008, GOP presidential contender Fred Thompson said he'd open up the Everglades to more oil drilling only to have GOP rival Mitt Romney respond: "You're kidding. … Let's take that off the table."
Since 1943, the Collier family has been drilling for oil on property near the Everglades, first under the auspices of the Humble Co. and now through Collier Resources.
Back then, the land had not yet been declared an area of critical environmental sensitivity. By the 1970s, when Congress created the Big Cypress National Preserve, west of Everglades National Park, the Collier family was allowed to retain its drilling rights on land in the preserve as part of a compromise to win political support.
The federal government estimates that Collier Resources has 765,000 acres with an estimated 40 million barrels of available oil — the equivalent of two days of U.S. consumption in 2002.
That year, the Interior Department, under then President George W. Bush, attempted to buy out the Collier family's oil and mineral rights for $120 million. The idea was contrary to the administration's policy of expanded domestic exploration but it was a boon to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was running for re-election.
The deal fell through when Congress refused to pay for it.
The oil industry has been urging the governor and legislators for years to open Florida waters and land resources to expansion of oil and gas development. Since the economy has soured, their pitch has focused on the jobs the industry could produce for geologists, surveyors and dozens of other professions involved in charting and exploring potential.
"There's oil there and we've been producing it," said Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council. "With new technologies, there might be a lot more."
Mica says it does not concern investors that the current Big Cypress wells produce less valuable, lower-grade crude.
"America is the best in the world at refining different kinds of crudes," he said. "At $85 a barrel, people are going to great lengths just to get a few barrels, because it's not just a drop in the bucket."
Herald/Times staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.