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War over offshore oil drilling heats up

The advertisements began popping up on television screens across the country this summer. A blond-haired woman in a dark pantsuit walks across a map of America and talks about how the country needs more energy — and there's plenty of it just offshore.

"But unlike many countries, our Congress puts much of it off limits," the woman tells viewers. "A majority of Americans say that should change. Today's technology allows us to tap these resources and protect the environment. So let's put America's oil and natural gas to work … for Americans."

The ads are part of a multimillion-dollar campaign by the American Petroleum Institute. The institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, wants to push Congress to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling off the Florida coast and other parts of the country, said institute vice president Jim Craig.

The campaign seeks to capitalize on polls showing more public support than ever for offshore drilling, and it has benefited from the failure of traditional drilling opponents to muster much of a counterattack.

The oil industry's aggressive ad campaign may hit its goal this week as Democrats and Republicans in the Senate hope to push through an energy bill that would allow drilling as close as 50 miles off Florida's beaches. It would also allow a handful of other coastal states to choose whether to opt in as well. And it calls for investing $20-billion in developing petroleum-free motor vehicles and extending tax credits for solar and wind energy that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

The House may vote on a similar bipartisan initiative later this month, according to a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rising gas prices have also pushed energy to the forefront of the presidential race, with GOP nominee John McCain going so far as to make a campaign stop last month on a rig in the central Gulf of Mexico co-owned by Chevron and ExxonMobil.

"We will drill new wells offshore, and we'll drill them now," he told the Republican National Convention on Thursday.

Under fire from McCain, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would be willing to support limited additional offshore oil drilling if it was part of a comprehensive energy plan that promoted alternate fuels too — exactly the sort of bill Congress may vote on this month.

So the time is ripe for achieving the petroleum industry's long-sought goal of overturning the moratorium, which dates back to 1990.

The American Petroleum Institute has been running television ads touting the good side of the oil and gas industry since 2005. But now the organization launched a more intensive campaign, buying slots on both network and cable news channels for its new ad.

Asked how much the latest TV ad cost to produce, all Craig would say was, "A lot."

In addition, the institute has also been buying full-page ads in the St. Petersburg Times, Orlando Sentinel and other newspapers around Florida, as well as in USA Today and Newsweek magazine, and running radio ads as well.

"The whole point of this is to help people understand our industry and the value it brings to our American way of life," Craig said. "More and more people agree that we need access" to the off-limits areas, such as the waters off Florida's beaches.

Drilling opponents, a group that always included both environmental organizations and tourism and beach-related businesses, have not managed to mount a similar advertising blitz. The liberal group and the national Sierra Club both ran limited advertising earlier this summer criticizing McCain for saying that expanded drilling would lower gas prices in the short term, but that's been it.

Belatedly, a handful of activists have launched a campaign called "Don't Rig Florida's Economy." On Aug. 30, the fledgling organization sponsored a night at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. About 190 people showed up to hear a panel discussion and then see a free dolphin show, said Cathy Harrelson of the Sierra Club.

The organization — a loose coalition of groups such as the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Surfrider, as well as some businesspeople worried about beach pollution harming the tourist trade — was slow to gear up on the issue, Harrelson said.

"Some people had some complacency about this because we'd managed to fight it off for all these years," she said.

Then, in July, the state's newspapers reported that the latest Quinnipiac University poll found that 60 percent of the Floridians who were likely to vote in the presidential race supported drilling for oil and gas in areas offshore that are now protected. That, plus the American Petroleum Institute ads and news about what was happening in Congress, finally galvanized the opponents.

"We knew we had to do something," Harrelson said. One particularly nettlesome point for the opponents was that the bill proposed in the Senate would not give Floridians any say in expanding drilling, unlike other coastal states.

Formed in July, the coalition set up a Web site — dontrig — then started e-mailing news release and staging events designed to stimulate grass roots opposition to offshore drilling.

But don't look for any expensive TV ads like the ones the institute bought.

"There's this coalition," Harrelson said, "but there's really not much money behind it."

On the Web

To see all of the American Petroleum Institute's television and print ads, or to hear their radio ads, click here:

For the latest news on energy issues, alternate fuels and global warming, check out the Fueling Station blog: blogs.

War over offshore oil drilling heats up 09/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 7:24pm]
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