TALLAHASSEE — The high price of gasoline has cracked the once solid wall of antidrilling sentiment in the Florida Legislature.
"I'm tired of spilling blood in the Middle East for oil," said Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, a drilling proponent whose son is a Marine. "If we're going to protect our nation, you've got to protect resources."
Pruitt, who will remain in the Senate after he steps down as president in November, was one of a half-dozen prominent Republican lawmakers who told the St. Petersburg Times they would support offshore drilling with safeguards.
Others include Sens. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, Mike Haridopolos of Indialantic, J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, Ronda Storms of Valrico and Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, a likely future House speaker.
But that view is far from universal among the Legislature's Republican majority, suggesting a tense debate should the federal government lift its offshore drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and leave the issue up to individual states. Just last month Gov. Charlie Crist backed such a plan by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee.
Republicans who oppose drilling include state Sens. Dennis Jones of Treasure Island, Victor Crist of Tampa, Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami, and state Rep. Ed Hooper of Clearwater. The incoming House speaker, Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin, opposes offshore drilling.
"I earned the title of 'the Sandman' for protecting our white fluffy beaches to attract tourism," Jones said. "Drilling for oil is dirty and nasty and not economical. I don't care if McCain is president. That wouldn't change my mind one bit."
Several hurdles remain before legislators would be in a position to consider the issue, including a rollback of both a Congressional moratorium and a 2006 federal law banning drilling within 125 miles of the Panhandle and more than 200 miles from Tampa Bay.
Florida controls roughly three miles of state waters off the east coast and roughly 10 miles off the west coast. Partly in reaction to the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989, the state banned drilling in state waters. Later in the 1990s, the Legislature strengthened that ban.
Federal waters are controlled by the federal government, but McCain favors lifting the moratorium and leaving drilling up to individual states. Crist agrees — with appropriate but yet unspecified environmental safeguards.
Groups that oppose drilling say it would be a nightmare if the Legislature ever got the power to decide to allow offshore drilling, citing the entrenched influence of many business lobbies on legislative decisions.
"Once the oil industry gets a grip on the state Legislature, they run the show," said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the liberal-leaning group Progress Florida. "When you look to the degree that deep-pocketed special interests have gotten their way in Tallahassee, the last thing we want to do is give the Exxons and Chevrons of the world that avenue to open up our coast."
It might never happen. Among the most prominent lawmakers who remain staunchly opposed to lifting the bans is Sansom, who represents an oceanfront district in the Panhandle. He and other opponents cite studies that suggest drilling from offshore rigs would take a decade to translate into lower gas prices. Sansom is in Europe this week and could not be reached.
Diaz de la Portilla called offshore drilling a horrible idea and criticized Crist for raising the issue. "To even consider the option is a play on politics by the governor. He is making a big mistake," Diaz de la Portilla said.
A key Republican senator, Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach, the likely next Senate president, did not return calls for comment. Others like Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, say support depends on the details. Gaetz is not in favor of any drilling that would interfere with the work of Florida military bases but he's also not ruling offshore drilling out completely.
Fasano argues that Florida's 18-million residents might see a more immediate economic benefit from offshore drilling at 100 miles off the coast if the state could work out a deal that resembles one brokered by Alaska. That state's roughly 670,000 residents each receive $1,000 or more annually from oil companies' payments.
"I'd like to see citizens and taxpayers benefit from any oil found off the shores of Florida," Fasano said. "It has to be done in an environmentally safe way, and there's technology to keep it safe, so we might as well take advantage of it."