TALLAHASSEE — A secretive group of powerful legislators, business groups and Texas oil companies has been laying the groundwork since December to win legislative approval to open Florida waters to oil exploration and end the 20-year drilling moratorium.
Florida Energy Associates, which identifies itself only by saying it is financed by a group of independent oil producers, has hired lobbyists, public relations experts, a financial consultant and a pollster to help advocate for the sale of drilling leases in state waters between the shore and 10 miles off Florida's Gulf Coast.
And the group has influential friends: Associated Industries of Florida, the Association of Builders and Contractors, and several petroleum companies.
Between the start of April and the end of July, the group spent as much as $234,000 on legal work and lobbying to push a bill through the Legislature last session. The measure passed the House, 70-43, but died in the Senate.
Supporters say defeat won't happen again.
"I predict we'll pass the bill and the governor will sign it," boasted Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida.
But he declined to say which members of his group are backing the effort. "With the nature of public discourse today, they don't want to have a target on their backs," he said.
Bishop has reason to feel confident. The group has heft: Florida Energy Associates has contributed $55,000 to political parties — $35,000 to Republicans and $20,000 to Democrats — since May.
The group has sponsored legislative leadership dinners and has recruited two of the most powerful state lawmakers to sponsor the oil-drilling bill in 2010: Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Melbourne Republican slated to become Senate president in 2010, and Rep. Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican set to become House speaker in 2010.
Cannon and Haridopolos say they'll earmark the revenue raised by oil and gas to programs such as the Everglades cleanup, conservation land-buying, renewable energy development and children's health care.
"I think it's smart economic policy, and it's the way to fund environmental protection and preservation," Cannon said.
And the group's aim appears to have some public support. An April poll by Mason-Dixon research, commissioned by the group, found that 59 percent of Floridians would support drilling off Florida's coasts and 88 percent would support it if they can be sure it will not harm the environment. A July poll by the Tarrance Group, also for Florida Energy Associates, found that 65 percent of Floridians favor drilling off state beaches and 29 percent oppose it.
But the biggest enticement for Florida is the promise of cash. Orlando economist Hank Fishkind, hired by the group, estimated that the state could earn as much as $2.3 billion in oil and gas revenues a year from oil leases and taxes.
That promise and the polling numbers have softened Gov. Charlie Crist's opposition — he now says oil drilling should be an option for Florida.
"Now we have another shot at it. We have the time to do it, and we have the facts on our side," said Doug Daniels, a Daytona Beach lawyer representing Florida Energy Associates.
Lining up on the other side: environmentalists, including Audubon of Florida, which says it has fewer resources but strong public support.
Susan Glickman of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls it "a David and Goliath situation."
"Funders with deep pockets are coming to our state trying to ram down a drastic policy that the public will reject," she said, dismissing the polling data as inaccurate.
"When people have the ability to look at the real facts in this situation, Florida will reject offshore drilling as they have for decades."
Cannon, who sponsored the previous House proposal, said he has revamped it to "raise the bar" for oil companies.
His first plan would have allowed drilling as close as 3 miles from shore. This one, he said, will require staying at least 5 miles away and will include stronger provisions to make sure beachgoers can't see drilling rigs from shore.
He also wants to raise the entry fee for obtaining a lease for exploratory drilling from $1 million in the previous proposal to as much as $5 million, he said.
Daniels, the Florida Energy Associates attorney, said the technology has changed to make drilling less visible and intrusive.
Drilling platforms would be easily set up in 60 feet of water, he said, "no closer than 6 nautical miles and out of sight," and remain for as long as six months so they could drill multiple wells.
Pipelines would then be tethered from production rigs or onshore platforms that extract the oil and gas. The oil would be piped onshore to production facilities in Florida or Alabama. No transport tankers would be used, he said. The oil and gas would be stored onshore.
"It can be done safely, and it can be done virtually out of sight," Daniels said.
Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida welcomes the debate as a chance to examine the numbers that proponents are using. For example, he challenges whether lawmakers could bank on the $2 billion revenue estimates any time soon, since it could take years to get permits and start drilling.
"They are throwing out a lot of assumptions that are not testable assumptions, which is shifting the debate," he said.
Haridopolos said the supporters will have to be forthcoming about who is behind them and how the technology works.
"We want to have a full vetting of the issue, and they're not going to get something passed until they fully disclose who the players are and their technologies as well," he said.
Daniels said that the group has kept a low profile because "the independent oil and gas business is pretty competitive, and they just don't want people to know what it is they're doing."
Cannon is less concerned.
"I don't know who was funding the proposal or the opposition's testimony and, frankly, that's irrelevant," he said. "I'm concerned and focused on getting the policy right."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]iamiherald.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Florida Energy Associates has not offered to donate to the St. Johns River Alliance, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper and other environmental organizations in exchange for support for oil drilling off the coast of Florida. A story Sunday was incorrect on this point.