When it comes to drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, it's as if there are two Floridas. • The people who live and work along the gulf coast tend to oppose it. Counties and cities around the state's western rim — including Pinellas County, Largo, Tarpon Springs, St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor — have passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling. • "I'm hearing from a lot of good friends in the St. Pete Beach area saying, 'Please, NO!' " said state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. • Much of the support for the Legislature lifting the state's longtime ban on offshore drilling is coming from the state's inland areas, where no swimmer will ever encounter a tar ball.
A Times/Herald poll last fall found that voters were more likely to favor offshore drilling if they lived farther away from the coast. Support was strongest in Central Florida, where 60 percent of those polled said they were for drilling and only 34 percent were against.
"This is an issue that is completely based on region," pollster Tom Eldon said.
Look at the Legislature's most vocal proponent of allowing drilling rigs in Florida waters, Rep. Dean Cannon.
As incoming speaker of the House, Cannon can count on plenty of votes from his colleagues for the prodrilling bill he has promised to introduce this session. But the Winter Park Republican doesn't have to worry about any environmental consequences for his district. His voters are 100 miles away from the nearest sugar-sand beach.
Cannon sponsored a bill that suddenly appeared in mid session last year that would have allowed rigs within 3 miles of the gulf beaches. In addition to the backing from Cannon, the bill was being pushed by three dozen lobbyists hired by Florida Energy Associates, a group of oil interests that has refused to identify its members.
The company also enlisted a well-known Central Florida economist, Hank Fishkind, and a leading Tallahassee public relations firm, Ron Sachs Communications, to press its case. The bill, despite being unveiled late in the session, passed the House, only to run out of steam in the Senate.
"We underestimated the change in psychology that would have to take place for there to be enough support for offshore drilling," said Doug Daniels, the Florida Energy Associates' Daytona Beach attorney.
Cannon has promised that his new bill will push the rigs another 2 miles out, so they would be 5 miles off the beaches. Once again, though, his biggest challenge lies in the Senate. Last fall Senate President Jeff Atwater said he had no interest in taking up the topic this year.
"The oil drilling matter is not on the Senate agenda for the coming session," Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said then.
Atwater asked Constantine's committee to conduct a detailed review of the implications of drilling in state waters. Constantine says he did so because "our committee would be one of the most protective of our natural resources." He said the committee staff is "working diligently" on the report, which would be produced sometime during the session.
As of February, Cannon had not filed a bill (he did not respond to an interview request) and neither had the Senate's biggest proponent of lifting the drilling ban, Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic. Meanwhile Florida Energy Associates has ditched two-thirds of its lobbyists. Daniels said the company had "backed off a bit."
But that doesn't mean the issue has lost steam, at least in some quarters, Constantine said. "I'm hearing from a lot of my conservative friends, saying, 'Drill, baby, drill!' " he said.
Even if environmental groups succeed in keeping the drilling ban in place this year, the odds tip even more in Cannon and Haridopolos' favor next year. That's when Cannon becomes speaker and Haridopolos replaces Atwater as president of the Senate. Meanwhile old hands like Constantine — first elected to a legislative seat in 1992 — will be term-limited out of the upper chamber.
"If things look better in 2011, so be it," Daniels said.
Yet the drive to drill might still run aground next year, too, because all three candidates for governor say they don't want rigs in the gulf. Republican Bill McCollum says it would "just completely terrorize our beaches.'' His GOP rival Paula Dockery opposes drilling too, as does Democrat Alex Sink.
Of course, there was a time when Gov. Charlie Crist — a loyal son of St. Petersburg, with a home overlooking Tampa Bay and a boat for cruising in the gulf — opposed offshore drilling as well. Then, during the 2008 presidential race, suddenly Crist didn't oppose it anymore. For drilling supporters, Crist's conversion set the template for all Florida politicians.
"It's sort of an educational process," Daniels said. "And I think more and more people are becoming educated."