TALLAHASSEE — Oil drilling proponents attempted to refute one of the most potent arguments against oil drilling off Florida shores Tuesday with a new report that suggests that weapons testing and pilot training is compatible with oil rigs and pipelines.
"I am totally confident that … drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and military missions can (co-)exist as we speak today," said Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general and a member of Securing America's Future, a nonprofit, pro-drilling group that compiled the report.
The report, discussed during a conference call Tuesday, concluded that new measures by the Defense Department show that oil and natural gas drilling in the gulf would pose minimal interference with the military missions at Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases in the Panhandle. The two bases share more than 134,000 square miles of restricted air space in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who is pushing federal legislation to end the ban on oil drilling off Florida shores and allow exploration starting at 45 miles out, said the report will give him the evidence he needs to counter a 2005 letter by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Then, Rumsfeld warned that oil drilling in the eastern gulf could pose a threat to military operations.
The new evidence compiled by Martin Sullivan, a retired Marine Corps colonel, shows that there "is no credible evidence to support that," Dorgan said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, immediately challenged the conclusions of Dorgan and the retired military officers.
"It should come as no surprise that a group that touts drilling off Florida should produce a study saying drilling there is okay," Nelson said in a statement.
John Lehman, secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, said Tuesday that he strongly supports drilling in the eastern gulf because of the national security implications of relying on foreign oil. He said there is a "well-established process'' to work out any potential conflicts for military operations, "if any difficulties arise."
Gregory Johnson, a retired Navy admiral, said that oil leases can be canceled if there is evidence they could cause serious harm to national security or defense.
But the commanders on the ground in Florida are sounding a different message. They warn that Florida's military industry, with an economic impact estimated at about $60 billion a year, could be harmed by drilling. An Eglin air wing commander told a state House Committee last week that offshore drilling could be a problem for flight testing and missile-firing exercises in the gulf.
Eglin tests missiles by firing them at drone aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico. The drones and spent missiles "have to fall somewhere," said Col. Bruce McClintock, commander of the 96th Air Base Wing.
Legislators have been reviewing allowing drilling off Florida's coast between 3 and 10 miles out, with the House pushing for the legislation and Senate leaders being more cautious.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.