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Florida oil: not so much, not so bad?

Last year, when some in our Legislature wanted to throw open Florida's waters to oil drilling right away, the president of our state Senate slowed it down.

Instead, Jeff Atwater asked for a study. The report he asked for is complete and will be presented Monday in Orlando and Tallahassee.

The report was prepared by the Collins Center for Public Policy, a good-guy outfit that studies state issues. That center produced the study for another group called the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, chaired by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

If Florida does open its waters, the report notes, the almost certain political consequence will be that Congress opens the eastern Gulf of Mexico as well.

"It would be hard to maintain congressional support for a ban on oil and gas activity from 10 to 125 miles from the Florida coastline," the report says, "when the state is allowing it inside of 10 miles."

The report does not say flat-out whether Florida should allow drilling. But it contains information that both sides of the debate can use:

• Estimated reserves in Florida waters and the eastern Gulf of Mexico are only a fraction of those in the central and western gulf.

• These reserves would boost U.S. production by 1 to 2 percent, with "no discernible effect on petroleum prices at the retail level" and little contribution toward the nation's "energy independence." Florida-only reserves account for less than one week's worth of U.S. consumption. (Caveat: Improved technology and additional studies could change these estimates.)

• Best-case estimates are that gulf oil production would generate an average of $90 million to $180 million a year to the state and create 2,000 to 5,000 jobs. There would be additional revenue from state-only waters, but perhaps not as much as in other gulf states, which range from $50 million to $200 million annually.

The report is somewhat reassuring about environmental risks. In fact, it noted that 60 percent of the oil released into North American waters comes from natural seepage.

The next biggest source is you and me — runoff into the sea from urban areas, the pollution we dump into our rivers and the oil we churn into the water from our boats. Spills from drilling account for less than 1 percent of the total, the report says.

It says the darker sands and tar balls of Texas beaches come from geological differences and natural seepage.

The report also says there is no evidence drilling leaves "substantial, lasting impacts" on the sea floor, nor that air pollution is significant. Drilling noise bothers whales, but the feds require platforms to warn away marine mammals sonically first.

Without a doubt, a major spill would be devastating. Farther offshore in the gulf, because of the nature of the currents, the Keys and even the state's east coast would be the likely victims.

Closer to shore, we are at the mercy of the prevailing winds.

However, the report points out that major spills are extremely rare and even more rare thanks to changes in federal law made in 1990 after the famous Exxon Valdez spill. Much-publicized spills in other parts of the world such as one in East Timor in 2009 would not have occurred here because of tougher safety rules, it says.

So opening Florida and the gulf to drilling would neither help our "energy independence," nor drive down prices, nor be a cure-all for state revenue and job creation. On the other hand, there is little evidence of environmental damage or a daily degradation of Florida's beaches from routine operations, although the remote risk of a catastrophic spill is still scary.

My own bias is that the limited benefits are not worth even a minimal risk. You might read the same report and conclude the opposite. In any case, this is the fairest thing I have read about it.

Not only can you read the report for yourself, but also add your comments to it, at collinscenter.org.

Florida oil: not so much, not so bad? 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 9:58pm]
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