Supporters of oil drilling off Florida building war chest in upcoming debate

TALLAHASSEE — From an office near the state Capitol, David Rancourt oversees a growth industry: the lobbying and public relations operation seeking to lift the long-standing ban on offshore oil and gas exploration in Florida.

A member of the powerhouse lobbying firm Southern Strategy Group, Rancourt represents Florida Energy Associates, a group of out-of-state oilmen seeking to drill off Florida's coast. With its mix of political power, money and raw emotion, drilling could dominate the next session of the Legislature in the spring.

But the battle lines are being drawn now. At Rancourt's direction, pro-drilling forces have assembled a team of nearly three dozen lobbyists, including the wife of the Senate majority leader and leading public relations and polling firms, while seeding both political parties with $125,000 in contributions.

He frames drilling in stark economic and national security terms: Profits from selling leases and from future royalties could cure Florida's revenue shortfalls while reducing America's dependence on oil that enriches people overseas "who hate us."

"We have got to get hold of this economy, and we need to create a wealth event," said Rancourt, 44, an Army veteran and former aide to Gov. Jeb Bush.

Drilling opponents, meanwhile, are mobilizing a network of coastal businesses and elected officials to turn up the volume on what they say is a grave threat. Their message: Drilling would destroy Florida's natural beauty and tourism economy, and drilling advocates are trying to buy victory with campaign cash and lobbying muscle.

Both sides target the same audience: the 160 members of the state Legislature.

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Audubon of Florida lobbyist Eric Draper wasn't subtle in making his case against drilling to a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, calling it a "dubious scheme advanced by special interests" and asking: "Why do they need to hire 50 lobbyists?"

As a PowerPoint slide show displayed grimy images of the coastline of South Padre Island, Texas, Draper said: "It's dangerous, it's dirty, it's not safe, and it's ugly."

Draper, who spent the summer collecting anti-drilling resolutions from various cities on the central and lower Gulf Coast, then listed recent gasoline prices at the pump in drilling states such as Texas and Louisiana. They were lower than Florida's, but not by much — 9 to 12 cents a gallon.

"Where's the logic that gas prices are going to come down?" Draper asked.

On the other side, Florida Energy Associates attorney Frank Matthews said drilling can help Florida cope with revenue shortfalls and high unemployment. The question, Matthews said, is whether to repeal the drilling ban and give the governor and Cabinet authority to accept proposals, for a fee, to lease land for exploration with the state getting a share of royalties.

"We have a ban that needs to be repealed, just to start the conversation," Matthews told legislators in a calm voice. "The risk is, in fact, manageable, and it's based on the protections you will impose."

As Draper and Matthews argued, Carolyn Oblin stood in the back of a Capitol conference room, updating her Facebook page, Floridians Against Big Oil. Oblin, 41, a Green Party activist from Tallahassee, is using Facebook to mobilize like-minded people to tell legislators why drilling would be disastrous for Florida.

• • •

Lobbyist David Rancourt is a big, strapping guy with an easy smile who once ran Florida's elections division. He said drilling foes have a "20- or 30-year head start" on the debate because drilling was long considered a political taboo in Florida. He says his side will win out by emphasizing jobs, revenue and the lack of risk from drilling.

"Science and facts need to prevail," Rancourt said.

The Lakeland native said modern technology minimizes the visual blight of offshore drilling platforms through the use of temporary jack-up rigs or drilling from the shore. "I was born here," Rancourt said. "I don't want to see oil rigs offshore."

He speaks with incredulity about how oil companies are fighting to come to Florida and pay for the right, as he puts it, to create jobs and pay the state large royalty fees.

"If that message can't sell on its own in Florida, then nothing can," Rancourt said.

Florida Energy Associates has 31 lobbyists on its team, with individual lobbyists hired to target key members or groups, such as African-Americans or liberal Jewish members from South Florida. The goal is to make the pro-drilling constituency appear as broad as possible.

Of particular concern to Audubon's Draper is that Rancourt hired Sean Pittman, a lobbyist with close access to many African-American lawmakers, whose districts are mostly landlocked and whose support could be crucial in counteracting the opposition of moderate Republicans.

"They are in play, and we're a bit concerned," Draper said of black caucus members.

The solar energy industry, represented by the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, recently threw its conditional support to lifting the ban. Association director Bruce Kershner noted the need for a reliable, permanent funding source for a rebate program for homeowners and businesses that use solar energy.

Environmentalists pounced, with Draper saying drilling advocates are trying to "buy off" support by promising oil drilling revenues to various groups.

"Let's face it. The money always matters in this process," said Rancourt, who added that he did not know how much money his group was prepared to spend on lobbying, public relations, polling and campaign contributions.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Key players in drilling debate

Pro

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, college political science instructor and incoming Senate president in 2010. He says there's time to answer every senator's questions on drilling in gulf.

Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, incoming House speaker in 2010. His job is made easier by the fact that the House is expected to vote for the drilling bill, as it did in May.

David Rancourt, 44, lobbyist for Southern Strategy Group, a passionate advocate of the argument that drilling can ease Florida's budget woes and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil — and be done safely, too.

Con

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, a candidate for chief financial officer in 2010, who says offshore oil drilling "is not on the Senate agenda," but he has not firmly stated his opposition to the idea.

Eric Draper, lobbyist for Audubon of Florida, busily galvanizing coastal opposition to drilling, which he calls "dirty, dangerous and ugly."

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who proved to be a tenacious foe of a Central Florida commuter rail she helped sink in the 2009 session. "One spill, and Florida is not Florida anymore," Dockery said.

Supporters of oil drilling off Florida building war chest in upcoming debate 10/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2009 5:03pm]

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