TALLAHASSEE — A top House Republican will unveil legislation today that could open the door to the first oil and gas drilling off Florida's coast in decades.
Rep. Dean Cannon, the Orlando Republican who is slated to become House leader in 2010, will ask the House Policy Council to pass a law that lifts Florida's ban on oil drilling off state waters.
If lawmakers agree to pass the bill, it would be a complete reversal in state policy since the state imposed a virtual ban on drilling nearly 30 years ago.
But after years of resisting oil and gas drilling off Florida shores, the state's fiscal fiasco has made it politically practical for Cannon to pursue the change.
The measure, which drew howls of protest from environmentalists, would replace the ban with a plan to allow the governor and Florida Cabinet to charge $1 million per application to explore state-controlled waters that stretch between 3 and 10 miles offshore.
If the governor and Cabinet decided to allow exploration, oil companies would have to post a $500 million bond to begin.
"This doesn't allow or prevent drilling or exploratory activity," Cannon said. "It simply authorizes the governor and Cabinet to take proposals."
The shift in policy is being aggressively pushed by Associated Industries of Florida, whose members include oil companies that the group refuses to name. The group will be making a presentation today to the House Policy Council, when Cannon's bill will be heard.
Associated Industries commissioned a poll that says that 57 percent of Floridians like the idea of drilling off the coast. That's a drop from 70 percent who supported the idea in June, when gas prices peaked.
Cannon suggests the money be used to finance Florida Forever, the state land-buying program for conservation that has been crippled by a drop in the real estate taxes used to fund it.
Eric Draper of the Florida Audubon Society called Cannon's proposal a horrible idea, — particularly disturbing since the House has refused to hear legislation that would reduce auto emissions for new cars and reduce Florida's electric company dependence on fossil fuels.
"Florida's beaches are our legacy, and to put them at risk for a few million dollars makes no sense," he said. "One small oil spill could wipe out billions of dollars of economic activities."
Draper dismissed Cannon's suggestion that the revenue could be used to finance Florida Forever.
"We call that green wrapping," he said. "You wrap an environmentally destructive activity with a green ribbon."
But Dave Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council said environmental risks are minimal with modern technology.
"You just don't have oil spills with oil production and exploration," he said. "The entire ethic of the industry has changed."
He said it is much more likely to get oil on the beaches from natural seepage than from oil production and exploration.
Oil exploration in Florida began in the 1940s and continued into the 1990s, but there has never been any oil or gas produced from state waters, though many companies believe the potential is there.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, there are currently no active leases for drilling in state waters off Florida's coast, and in 2005, the state bought back the last active leases in state waters. Several companies have active leases in federal waters, though they are not producing.
Most geologists point to the Destin Dome, the massive geological formation off the state's Gulf Coast, which has untapped reserves of an estimated 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to produce enough energy for a midsized city like Tallahassee for 140 years, Mica said.
But drilling off Florida's coasts has also long been a politically charged debate.
Florida's congressional delegation agreed in 2006 to open up 8 million acres in the gulf to drilling in exchange for continuation of a drilling ban in federal waters off Florida's coasts. State waters start at the shore and run 10 miles out. Federal waters start 10 miles offshore.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.