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Sea grass protection tangled up in offshore oil drilling

Last year, we wrote about the mapping of an under-appreciated natural treasure: a 380,000-acre sea grass bed — the second-largest in the nation — off the coast of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

About 270,000 acres of this underwater savanna are classified as dense, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District scientists who studied it. And all the good things sea grass does, dense sea grass does exceptionally well.

Such as: holds the sea bottom in place like lawns hold the soil in our yards; absorbs carbon dioxide and releases dissolved oxygen; provides food and habitat for poster-worthy plant eaters such as manatees and green sea turtles, as well as for countless smaller creatures that are fodder for tarpon, grouper and other commercially valuable predators.

That's just a summary. When naturalists start listing the benefits of sea grass, you get the impression that, without it, we'd no longer have the gulf. We'd have a less-saline Dead Sea. And, on the coast, a dead economy.

It's hard to imagine that any responsible citizen could object to adding this expanse of sea grass to a long list of aquatic preserves in the state. But powerful state lawmakers could, and did. Watch how this played out last week and you understand why calling the legislative process "broken'' has become about as controversial as calling concrete "hard."

On Friday, Rep. Ron Schultz, R-Homosassa, was finally able to get a hearing for his bill creating the preserve before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee.

Led by Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, committee members postponed the deciding vote, effectively killing the bill because they aren't scheduled to meet again.

Kreegel, who argued that establishing the preserve would interfere with offshore drilling, is a political ally of the Legislature's leading drilling advocate, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

"I have no doubt leadership squashed this bill,'' Schultz said.

Last week, Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas wrote about lawmakers pushing a brand of conservatism that, I think, is hard to distinguish from dumping on the public's interest. Anti-corruption measures are out. So is increased government transparency. Tax relief for big business is in, along with drilling for oil in state waters within 10 miles of the coast.

True, the risk of a spill big enough to destroy significant chunks of sea grass is small, according to a recent report from the nonpartisan Collins Center for Public Policy. But the available reserves in Florida waters are also tiny, the report says. They wouldn't produce enough gasoline to supply the nation for a week. They wouldn't lower energy prices or help us break our dependence on foreign oil.

The amount is so small, in fact, that a lot of people think the oil industry is seeking permission to drill close to shore only to make the federal ban on tapping larger deep-water reserves seem absurd.

Drilling in Florida waters "doesn't make any economic sense,'' Schultz said. "It does, however make all kinds of sense if you want to make it impossible to continue the ban on drilling in federal waters in the eastern gulf.''

Would our Legislature really be party to such a cynical ploy? Is concrete hard?

Sea grass protection tangled up in offshore oil drilling 03/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 7:12pm]
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