Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Powerful gulf oil drilling lobby faces strong resistance in Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Dangling the promise of millions for the state's dwindling budget, a group of mostly unidentified oil and gas companies is bankrolling a last-minute fight to bring offshore drilling to Florida's coastline.

Florida Energy Associates LLC, a corporation formed in December by Daytona Beach lawyer Doug Daniels, has hired at least 20 of the state's most prominent lobbyists to push bills through the Legislature in the final week of the session. Most of the lobbyists were hired in the past 10 days, but the proposal has been planned for months.

The measure, slated for votes in the House and Senate this week, would give the governor and Cabinet authority to approve oil and gas exploration 3 to 10 miles off the Florida coast.

The sudden appearance of the issue near the end of a troubled legislative session has sparked outrage from environmental groups and Democrats in both houses who question why it surfaced with little time for discussion and debate.

Gov. Charlie Crist initially said he was willing to look at the measure but has since questioned the way lawmakers have rushed the bill through.

"Whenever you do something like that, you want to make sure that it's well thought out, that it's done in a very deliberate manner and that people have an opportunity to review it in a reasonable way," Crist said Friday.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink have joined the fray, denouncing the proposal and saying they can't believe any Florida lawmaker would seriously consider letting oil drilling occur so close to the state's priceless beaches.

Nelson contends there is not enough oil available to justify the environmental risk. Supporters of the bill say Nelson's view of oil drilling is outdated because new technology would allow drilling without unsightly offshore rigs and little danger of oil spills.

The group intends to use a seismic tool that uses satellite technology to pinpoint oil and gas reserves, said M. Lance Phillips, a Texas lawyer who is a principal partner in Florida Energy Associates. He said the investors believe Florida's potential includes "several major oil fields" within the Gulf of Mexico.

Once the plan is approved, Phillips said, a test well could be drilled within 10 days, and oil tapped within 18 months.

Associated Industries of Florida, the state's most prominent business lobbying group, is leading the fight for the bill, but no one will identify all of those who are paying for an expensive lobbying and public relations campaign that now includes television and newspaper advertising.

Phillips of Mexia, Texas, and Dallas lawyer William Lewis Sessions appeared before a House committee considering the issue last week. Phillips owns Oil and Gas Acquisitions, an independent oil and gas exploration company, and is the chairman of the Limestone County Republican Party. Sessions, the son of former FBI Director William Sessions and brother of Texas congressman Pete Sessions, represents oil company clients, as well as the Cherokee Indians of Texas.

Daniels, the Daytona Beach lawyer who formed the corporation, says others helping finance the campaign "prefer not to have the notoriety."

"They prefer not to have other people in the oil business know they are looking in Florida," Daniels said Saturday.

Daniels said his group filed the original bill earlier this year. That bill (H1219) would have directed the Department of Environmental Protection to come up with a plan for developing offshore oil reserves. The bill was expanded last week with an amendment filed by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Cannon said he decided to push the issue late in the session after Associated Industries president Barney Bishop approached him a few weeks ago. "For a long time, offshore oil drilling was the third rail; we didn't talk about it," Cannon said. "But when gas prices spiked last summer, I thought about it and the hazard of not having our own supply."

Ron Sachs Communications went to work for Daniels' corporation two weeks ago after initially meeting with the group in December. Sachs, a former communications director for Gov. Lawton Chiles who opposed offshore drilling, said the individuals behind the move are small, independent men and women and not big companies.

"There is a lot more suspicion about this than there should be," Sachs insisted.

Sachs refused to say how much is being spent for advertising and public relations, economic analysis and a pollster, but he said that drilling could provide the state with enough revenue to resolve many of its budget shortfalls.

Lobbyists hired to fight for the bill include the team at Southern Strategy Group, which includes former House Speaker John Thrasher; Holland & Knight lobbyist Martha Barnett; former Secretary of State Jim Smith; and Wade Hopping.

Although all lobbyists will have to disclose the fees they are earning in quarterly reports, only one of them would answer questions about fees for the oil drilling bill. Smith said he had been asked to help and signed a yearlong contract for $10,000 a month.

Powerful gulf oil drilling lobby faces strong resistance in Florida 04/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 1:00pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. To many Americans, Memorial Day has lost its meaning


    ANNVILLE, Pa. — Allison Jaslow heard it more than once as the long holiday weekend approached — a cheerful "Happy Memorial Day!" from oblivious well-wishers.

    Sgt. Heather Lynn Johnsen, of Roseville, Calif., guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Friday, March 22, 1996, in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. [Associated Press file]
  2. Photo gallery: Florida High School Track & Field State Championships, May 6, 2017


    View a gallery of images from Saturday's Florida High School Track & Field State Championships in Bradenton.

    Jefferson High sprinters Eyekeyle Gardner, 17, left, and Kourtney Lawton, 15, compete in the Girls 2A 4x400 Meter relay during the FHSAA Track & Field Finals held at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida on Saturday, May 6, 2017.
  3. Police: 8 dead in Mississippi shooting, including deputy


    BROOKHAVEN, Miss. — Authorities in Mississippi say a suspect is in custody after eight people were killed in a shooting, including a sheriff's deputy.

  4. Photos: 97X BBQ brings Grouplove, Coin, Milky Chance, more to Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg


    Alternative rock fans got a jump start on Memorial Day partying on Saturday at the annual 97X BBQ, which brought Grouplove, Milky Chance, K. Flay, Coin and more to Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg. Kasamba Kokayi was there snapping photos; click the headline of this post for a slideshow.

    Grouplove performed at the 97X BBQ at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg on May 27, 2017.
  5. Winner and loser of the week in Florida politics


    Winner of the week 1: 'Liquor wall’ proponents. Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of a bill to allow Walmart, Target and other big box stores to sell liquor was a victory for an array of groups, from smaller merchants and Publix (which has stand-alone booze shops near its stores) to those who feel the hard stuff …