DESTIN — Florida's biggest business is struggling with a question that was once heresy: Can a beach-based tourism industry and offshore oil drilling live side by side?
"Two years ago if you raised the question, (the answer) would have been no, hell no, it's never going to happen," said Paul Catoe, boss of Tampa's tourism marketing agency.
But with gas hitting $4 or more a gallon this summer, public opinion and political positions changed quickly. Catoe and other tourism officials gathered in this Panhandle beach town Thursday to hear advocates debate opening areas of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling. A committee named by the state's tourist marketing agency, Visit Florida, will propose an industry position to the Florida Tourism Commission next month.
"We have to come to a consensus," said Robert Skrob, executive director of the Florida Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, which sponsored the program. "How are we going to fuel our industry, provide transportation to visitors and protect our natural resource?"
Consensus could be hard to come by. Look no further than the Tampa Bay area for proof.
The risk of tar balls washing up on Pinellas beaches isn't worth any possible benefit of lower gas prices, said D.T. Minich, the county's tourism director. His bosses on the county's Tourism Development Council wrote federal and state officials last month opposing changes to federal ban that keeps drilling at least 235 miles off the coast of Pinellas and 125 miles off the Panhandle.
Catoe says damage to Pinellas beaches from drilling could hurt hotels and attractions.
With political leaders from President Bush to Gov. Charlie Crist now behind lifting drilling bans, industry efforts to fight might be futile.
"I think the beachfront locations have their heels dug in," Catoe said. "Will anything change it? I don't know."
Oil industry officials and Rick Tyler, political activist and spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, certainly tried.
Tyler launched a campaign with the slogan "Drill Here, Drill Now and Pay Less" that picked up steam after getting the attention of Fox News and conservative radio talk shows. Polls showed that 73 percent of Americans supported increased production of domestic energy sources, including offshore drilling, he said.
Besides helping the state's tourism business, he said, drilling in the eastern gulf could produce royalties of $7-billion for Florida for at least 10 years and as many as 42, Tyler said.
That drew a sharp reaction from Harold Wheeler, who runs the tourism marketing agency for the Florida Keys.
"If there were a disaster, what would it cost to clean up?" he asked. "What would be the economic loss?"
More than $7-billion, Tyler said.
"With any energy there's risk," he said. "We haven't had a major spill since 1980."
His foil was Enid Sisskin of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, a Pensacola antidrilling group.
She cataloged damage from drilling in the gulf: 154 oil spills from rigs, platforms and pipelines in the past 10 years; trash on beaches; fish kills and injuries to marine mammals from seismic blasts during exploration.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.