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Gov. Crist, Senate reject bill for oil drilling off Florida coast

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist and Senate leaders put the brakes on a bill to open the door to near-shore oil drilling off Florida's coast Monday just as it overwhelmingly won approval in a fast-tracked vote in the House.

Moments after the House voted 70-43 — with two Democrats in support and three Republicans against — Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander told reporters the idea has run out of time this session. Senate President Jeff Atwater underscored that message at the end of the day.

"I'm not receptive to it," said Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. "That is a really significantly important issue. It'd be very difficult to imagine that's part of an end game for this session."

Crist said Monday that he was concerned about the "lateness of the hour'' and the "closeness to shore'' of the plan to give the governor and Cabinet authority to accept applications for oil and gas drilling between 3 and 10 miles off Florida's beaches.

The Senate rejection is a major disappointment for Rep. Dean Cannon, the Winter Park Republican designated to be House speaker in 2010. He had agreed to support the proposal on behalf of a group called Florida Energy Associates, which had spent months doing advance work on the issue.

The group refuses to identify its members except to say they include independent oilmen interested in exploring for oil and gas in Florida waters.

Cannon unveiled the idea in a late-session amendment last week, but the group had been working on the idea since December — drafting the amendment language and hiring a public relations firm to promote it, a polling company to survey it and an economist to come up with revenue estimates.

As Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham came out in opposition to the plan, Associated Industries of Florida bought television ad time on behalf of the group to promote it.

Cannon said Monday that he is not ready to give up.

"Five days in week nine (of the session) is plenty long time," he said. "Listen, people make all sorts of comments at the end of week nine. I think they'll have to deal with it as they see fit."

But environmentalists were not very happy.

"I think Cannon is leading his party off the cliff," said Eric Draper, lobbyist for the Florida Audubon Society. "This is an idea brought in by Texas oil companies who are interested in the right to drill in Florida and doing it on the cheap."

To forestall the criticism, House leaders added a series of sweeteners: promising to use $25 million in oil and gas revenues for solar energy rebates, $50 million to universities for energy research and education, $25 million for the environment and $25 million for oil and gas "training academies."

And to counter rumors that the Chinese were behind Florida Energy Associates, the House adopted an amendment requiring that the companies must have corporate headquarters and refineries in the United States.

The House vote went along party lines with Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda of Tallahassee and Debbie Boyd of High Springs the only Democrats to support it. Three Republicans opposed it: Reps. Bill Galvano of Bradenton, Ed Hooper of Clearwater and Bill Frische of Belleair Bluffs.

Democrats raised the specter of oil spills, bringing up the 1993 collision between an oil freighter and two tug-assisted barges in Tampa Bay that spilled more than 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel and gasoline, and about 330,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

Beaches were closed for a week and birds, sea turtles and shellfish beds were injured.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Gov. Crist, Senate reject bill for oil drilling off Florida coast 04/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 10:53pm]
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