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Texas is all for drilling off coast of Florida

GALVESTON, Texas

Melissa Parrot drains her Coors Light, slips out of her T-shirt and hops off the tailgate of her Texas Edition Ford F-150. The pickup gets 20 miles per gallon of gas, which costs $3.96 at Exxon, which gets petroleum from the earth beneath the brown saltwater she's about to step into.

"You're going to get in?" asks her friend. "Why not?" Melissa says. "Look at it," he says. "We drove all the way down here," she says.

They live north of Houston, 70 miles away. "Might as well get in." Melissa walks down Galveston's East Beach, where the signs say "Drinking Is Legal," past cigarette butts and beer bottles, toward breakers the color of Vaseline and a horizon dotted by oil rigs, into water so cloudy you can't see your feet a few steps out.

What's the difference between the beaches of Florida, where offshore oil drilling is prohibited, and the beaches of Texas, which opened its shores to drilling 40 years ago?

"This looks like crap," says Melissa's friend Kenneth Lyons, 19, still planted on the tailgate. "It's not something you want to get into."

After four decades of drilling in the western and central gulf, with some 3,800 offshore structures pumping oil and natural gas out of the earth today, the Lone Star State's beaches are ...

"Not Florida," says Lyons, whose dad has a place in Fort Myers.

"I refuse to go in," says Brad Jones, an out-of-work real estate agent sweating on the sidewalk not far away. "It's got a foul smell, like a sewage smell. It follows you."

Now that gas is $4 a gallon, national attention has turned again to the oil under the Outer Continental Shelf, under the eastern gulf, under Florida's coastlines.

The Texan president wants to lift the federal moratorium on drilling there.

The Arizona senator running for his seat wants the same thing.

And the Florida governor, in a shock to many, has said he's open to the idea.

The people of Texas are, too, even as they stand on stained shores.

• • •

"I hear opposition to offshore drilling and I think, 'How can these people be so dumb?' "

That's Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office. He controls the rights to the submerged lands up to 10 miles off the Texas coast, where drilling has helped bankroll the state's 4.5-million-student public education system.

Patterson is a former Marine lieutenant colonel. He carries a gun. He's speaking to energy officials at a conference in Galveston, where the talk is never far from the potential for profit from Florida waters.

"The timing is perfect" for Florida, he says.

"Florida is key," says Randall Luthi, a Wyoming lawyer and rancher who is director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which controls the gulf waters beyond Texas. "What interests us about Florida is it's close to a proven area."

About 18-billion barrels of crude oil flow under the waters of the eastern gulf and other areas currently off limits to drilling, he says. Luthi wants to let the oil industry tap that, even if it wouldn't be online for five to 10 years, and wouldn't immediately affect gas prices.

"If we do nothing, it's going to get worse," he says.

Besides, he says, "I think it would be better getting oil from the middle coast of Texas than from the Middle East."

Luthi says consumption of all types of energy is projected to climb in the United States through 2030. Texas is in line to be the first state to see an enormous wind farm built off its southern coast. But renewable energy is only part of the solution, he says. "The reality is, we need it all."

Which means tapping the eastern gulf.

Luthi says that the oil industry has had a good environmental record in the past 30 or 40 years and that there's little chance spillage would affect the Florida coast. Evidence?

Hurricane Katrina destroyed 115 oil platforms, damaged 52 and caused more than 7-million gallons of petroleum products to spill. According to Luthi, none of it reached the shore.

But a Houston Chronicle analysis showed that Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused at least "595 spills, which were spread across four states and struck offshore and inland." The negative effects "rank these two hurricanes among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history."

No one disputes that large spills over the years have harmed marine life and caused tar to wash up on Texas beaches.

The worst disaster came in 1979, when a rig blew out and dumped 3-billion barrels into waters north of the Mexican coast. Two weeks later, the oil coated Texas beaches 600 miles away. State tourism dropped by 60 percent.

Jerry Patterson remembers visiting Galveston as a kid and having to scrape tar off his feet. But the land commissioner says the days of environmental devastation are gone. Spills are measured in gallons now, rather than barrels.

"Those concerns were valid 40 years ago, but that was 40 years ago," he says. "This idea that offshore production will ruin the environment is complete horses---."

The product is so valuable that oil companies don't want to spill a drop, he says. Government regulations also provide a strong incentive to be careful.

Patterson says Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's reversal on offshore drilling is a smart move.

"Gov. Crist had some leadership a week ago," he says. "We said, 'Finally somebody in Florida has the b---- to talk sanity.' "

Patterson says we're in an "energy crisis" and Florida should chip in.

Even if it impacts the state's $50-billion tourism industry? And even if it means the view from Florida includes oil wells?

Here in Galveston, you can look out the big window of the convention center and see them in the distance.

"But does it really bother you?" he asks. "Just do this."

He covers one eye with his hand.

• • •

The sun is rising over Galveston as Mark Bane scans the beach for turtle tracks. The senior marine biology major at Texas A&M at Galveston is looking for signs of the world's most endangered sea turtle. He found a new Kemp's ridley nest the day before, the sixth this year on Galveston Island.

The tiny turtle is making a comeback after years of conservation work along the gulf, its native habitat. But the turtles are hard-pressed to find a spot to nest in a place where bulldozers scrape the beach in the mornings and dump trucks cruise the shoreline.

"We find everything from florescent tubes to pieces of hats to life jackets to light bulbs," Bane says, scanning the beach. "Where does the trash come from? You can narrow it down to ships, oil rigs, people on the beach. It's all of the above."

Even the man who spends his morning chasing fragile sea turtles has a balanced opinion of offshore drilling.

"It's a necessary evil," he says.

He supports a family and must drive 60 miles a day to school in a Mazda MX3 that costs $40 to fill. If that fuel comes safely from Florida's coast, he's not opposed.

"We've got to find sources for our own fuel rather than depend on other countries," he says.

Because going to other countries sometimes means spilling blood.

Daniel Salinas, 22, left Galveston for Iraq in 2003, with no misconceptions about why his Army unit was going.

"We needed oil," he says, sipping a Dos Equis in a bar off the beach. "Period. Still do. It's not like we're going to stop needing oil. I'd love to run my car off of water, but it's not going to happen."

That's why the kid wearing a shirt that says "Everything is bigger in Texas" doesn't mind the rigs on the horizon, or the odor off the water. He knows Florida, too. He has an aunt in Clearwater and swam near Jacksonville when he was stationed up the road.

"I really don't agree with big oil, but if we're going to get it, we should get it from us," he says. "There some s--- out there in the water, but if you're looking at the whole picture, of course we're killing fish, and you're not going to like it. But is it worth losing soldiers?"

"I think they ought to tell the people of Florida to shut up or park it," says Frank James, 57, as he sweeps a metal detector over the surf on East Beach, scooping up nails, soda tabs and loose change. He was in Tampa a few months ago and saw first-hand the difference. "This place is not pristine by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact of life is, we've got to get these gas prices under control or we're all going to be broke."

True, says Jana Zimmerhanzer, 40, who is feeding birds with her daughters downtown. Her husband owns a limousine service and hauls oil men from as far away as China around Houston, where paintings of oil rigs hang in banks and restaurants. It's easy to overlook environmental issues when oil puts food on your table.

"You see what you want to see," she says.

• • •

Melissa Parrot rises from the gulf, walks back to the pickup and grabs a towel.

She would rather be in Florida. She has felt the Destin sands beneath her feet, dipped her skin in water that looks like water.

"I don't see ruining anywhere to make gas prices come down," she says. "But at this point, nobody can even afford to go to Florida anymore to enjoy it."

She has been thinking about alternative means of transportation, something besides the F-150 parked on the beach. Her friend keeps talking about a scooter.

"I would so ride a horse," she says.

By the time Melissa and her friends get home, they will have burned 7 gallons of gas and $28 to come to water only one of them was brave enough to touch.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650. Staff photographer Chris Zuppa contributed to this report.

Texas is all for drilling off coast of Florida 06/28/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:46pm]

    

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