Legislators back lifting ban on oil drilling off Florida coast

TALLAHASSEE — In a full-barreled appeal to the House Policy Council, the oil and gas industry persuaded lawmakers to vote, 17-6, along party lines Tuesday for a bill that opens state waters to exploration and taps into new revenues for the state's ailing budget.

The council approved an amendment by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, that would lift Florida's ban on oil drilling in state waters and replace it with a plan to allow the governor and Florida Cabinet to seek bidders for exploration and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico between 3 and 10 miles offshore.

New revenues would come from a $1 million nonrefundable application fee for every bidder and, according to an industry-hired economist, from as much as $1.6 billion in royalties and taxes if the wells produce oil.

"We're giving the governor and Cabinet that chance to have that dialogue with no obligation whatsoever," Cannon said. "But we are taking away the shackles that currently prohibit Florida from not only pursuing energy independence but economic development and security and environmental protection."

Although the measure has no Senate companion, both the governor and Senate leaders said there may be time to consider it.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he was still reviewing the proposal but was "intrigued'' by the potential to extract oil "in a way that is safe, in a way that is clean and in a way that generates a lot of revenue for the state of Florida."

The Senate's top budget chief, Sen. J.D. Alexander, said he supports the idea of opening the gulf to oil exploration. He suggested that the proposal may remain alive because he believes lawmakers may be forced to go past the planned May 1 end of session, giving them time to consider it.

Cannon said he filed the last-minute measure to begin "a mature, thoughtful conversation'' about pursuing future oil and gas exploration. He emphasized there is no guarantee that oil rigs will be positioned off Florida's coasts and said there is no intent to pursue oil production off Florida's Atlantic coasts or around Key West.

Every Republican on the committee voted for the proposal, and the only Democrat to support it was Fort Lauderdale Rep. Yolly Roberson.

It was harshly criticized by environmentalists who called it hasty and short-sighted and by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a longtime opponent of drilling off Florida's coasts.

Nelson sent out messages to his Twitter followers saying, "I can't believe some Florida lawmakers might actually be serious about allowing oil drilling within ten miles offshore."

Cannon's lengthy pitch to the committee included a PowerPoint presentation and handouts with charts and photos, funded by a group named Florida Energy Associates, which refuses to identify its members.

Lewis Sessions, a Dallas-based lawyer who said he represents several independent West Texas oil companies that he also refused to name, told the committee that last year Texas earned $7 billion from taxes and fees on oil and gas leases and production.

Session noted that longtime development lawyer Frank Matthews helped draft the Cannon bill.

Mason Dixon pollster Larry Harris said an April poll on behalf of Florida Energy Associates found that if the public can be convinced that oil and gas drilling is environmentally safe, 88 percent support it. Short of that, 59 percent of the public generally supports it, he said.

Orlando economist Hank Fishkind told lawmakers that 15-year-old federal estimates indicate there is about 3 billion gallons of oil off Florida's coast. If 150 million barrels were drilled each year, at a rate of $53 per barrel and 20 percent royalties, the state would earn $31 billion over 20 years, or $1.6 billion a year.

He also predicted that oil and gas production would produce 17,000 to 20,000 jobs.

The environmentalists said they were caught off guard by the last-minute emergence of the proposal and urged the council to reject it.

"Please do not allow people who are being compensated most generously to articulate on behalf of the oil industry talk to you about the environmental sensitivity of oil drilling 3 miles from our coast," said Debbie Harrison of the World Wildlife Fund.

She said the state's coastal tourism and marine industries contribute $587 billion to Florida's economy each year, according to the Florida Oceans Council.

Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Legislators back lifting ban on oil drilling off Florida coast 04/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 8:21pm]

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