WASHINGTON — There was plenty of backlash Wednesday when President Barack Obama announced his plan to expand offshore oil drilling in Florida. Where it came from, however, is a stark illustration of how far the debate has shifted.
Heated words and dire predictions flew all day from environmentalists, but among public officials, there was mostly silence, mild concern or outright acceptance.
Once a formidable wall against additional drilling, Florida's political coalition began cracking five years ago, and Obama may have toppled it for good this week.
"If they were sitting around the White House knowing that Florida would rise up in an apoplectic uproar, chance is this proposal would have looked a lot different," Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida, which tracks the oil debate, said Thursday.
"When a state does not have a unified front, that automatically puts us in a weaker position," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, one of the few voices of opposition.
Contrast that with New England and California. Both areas strongly oppose any additional drilling and both were exempt from the president's proposal.
The Florida carrot, it seems, was maintaining the 125-mile buffer from the shore that is part of a current moratorium. It could be used by Democrats and others as a way to ward off an intensifying push from state Republicans for drilling much closer — and indeed that is what Sen. Bill Nelson and others did Wednesday.
"It ought to derail the scheme in the Florida Legislature to drill 3 miles offshore," Nelson said.
But environmentalists and others skeptical of drilling were puzzled by the early embrace. "Sen. Nelson, of all elected leaders, should know that chronic pollution and oil spills obey no boundaries," said Adam Rivera of Environment Florida.
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It used to be unthinkable that any politician from a state so dependent on beaches would advocate for more drilling. The change first began to emerge in 2005, when Congress began a new push for domestic oil and exploration.
The following year, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, proposed allowing drilling as close as 50 miles from shore. He got 13 other Florida Republicans to go along and the measure passed the House.
But it died in the Senate, largely because of the work of Nelson, a Democrat, and Mel Martinez, a Republican. Eventually, a compromise opened 8.3 million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and allowed exploration 125 miles south of the Panhandle but banned drilling within 234 miles of the Tampa Bay area through 2022.
Obama wants to upend that law, opening up 25 million acres in the gulf while keeping a 125-mile buffer. That is still a long distance but almost half of what Tampa Bay currently enjoys.
Nelson, who once bashed 2008 presidential candidate John McCain's vow to push for more drilling as "not grounded in reality," said Wednesday that he could live with Obama's plan. People familiar with the discussions say Nelson worked to prevent the administration from going closer to shore, perhaps within 75 miles.
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It was McCain and a persistent "drill, baby, drill," refrain from the 2008 campaign that caused Gov. Charlie Crist to flip on his opposition to drilling, as well as Obama, who once told a crowd in Jacksonville that drilling was shortsighted.
Even if he wanted to fight this time, Nelson lacks his ally, Martinez, who resigned from the Senate last fall. (George LeMieux, appointed to fill Martinez's seat, favors drilling as long as it is done safely.)
"It kind of surprised me," Martinez said in an interview Thursday of Nelson's endorsement, even as he conceded himself that the proposal isn't "too bad."
Martinez attributes the Florida reversal to growing turbulence in the Middle East and Hurricane Katrina, which did not cause oil disasters off the coast of New Orleans or Texas. But mostly, he said, "the dramatic change came when the price of gas hit $4 a gallon."
While gas prices have fallen, the drumbeat has not abated in the months since Martinez left office.
A January poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut showed 55 percent of Floridians supported lifting the federal ban. But when asked about drilling within 5 miles off the coast, 53 percent were opposed.
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Another factor driving the shift is the economy. With Florida's unemployment at a record high 12.2 percent, state coffers have dried up from plummeting tax revenue. Proponents have been hammering at drilling as a way to generate jobs and raise revenue.
It is working.
"We were presenting a unified front," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who is among the drilling opponents. "But bad economic times can lead people to desperation, and desperation leads to bad policy, and that's what happened in this case."
Obama's move provides an avenue to politicians, such as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, who oppose near-shore drilling but do not want to seem inflexible on the issue.
Yet those state lawmakers pushing drilling much closer to shore saw Obama as validating the need for more domestic drilling.
Castor, one of the few political voices of opposition, said she'll continue to fight the proposal.
"I do not believe it's a foregone conclusion," she insisted, saying many of her constituents were unhappy with the plan. "Other politicians shouldn't give it up so easily."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler and Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.