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Sen. Marco Rubio throws wrench into Florida oil drilling debate

WASHINGTON — Just over a week after President Donald Trump made a massive push for offshore oil drilling, Florida lawmakers have mobilized to protect a hard-fought moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Sen. Marco Rubio has inserted a new layer that critics fear could weaken the state's resolve.

The Miami Republican filed legislation that would extend the ban on eastern gulf drilling to 2027, joining an effort already proposed by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and a bipartisan group of House members, and endorsed by the military. At the same time, though, Rubio wants Florida to receive a share of revenue generated by drilling in the gulf — a significant departure.

"This would give Florida a new source of funding and recognize that as long as our shores shoulder some of the risk, it's only fair that Floridians share in some of the benefit," Rubio wrote Thursday in the Pensacola News Journal.

Opponents see the hand of the oil industry. "You get the camel's nose under the tent and suddenly, the camel is in the tent," said Nelson, who played a lead role, along with then-Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Orlando, in the 2006 accord that installed the drilling moratorium. "You throw the juicy tidbit out there and suddenly, Florida wants drilling in the gulf."

The current ban prohibits drilling within at least 125 miles off the Florida coast and is set to expire in 2022.

Rubio's proposal lacks specifics and his office refused to answer questions. It would surely draw questions from states in favor of drilling that share in some revenue and have fought the federal government for a bigger slice. Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama share 37.5 percent of offshore revenue, but that has been capped at $500 million annually.

Still, the move comes as the Trump administration has separately signaled interest in more drilling, which could put parts of the gulf in play and open up Florida's Atlantic coast.

"Florida is back in the picture," said Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, an antidrilling group, noting it's the first time he's aware a Florida politician has introduced the revenue option. "It's a poison pill," he asserted.

One Florida Republican, Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, said he'd be open to exploring revenue sharing. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, is also receptive if it does not jeopardize support of the ban "in any way." He wants a permanent ban, an idea pushed by Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, who, like Nelson, sees revenue sharing as troublesome.

"It's a very slippery slope," Castor said. "Our economic well-being is tied to clean water and clean beaches. Anything that weakens our resolve over time will be detrimental."

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has not seen Rubio's plan but looks forward to discussing it with the senator, spokeswoman Jackie Schultz said. "Gov. Scott is committed to protecting Florida's pristine environment and beaches. The governor believes any new activity needs to be proven and reliable to cause no harm to our environment or Florida families."

The oil debate is a mainstay of Florida politics and comes and goes in cycles. President Barack Obama in early 2010 moved to lift the 2006 ban, outraging environmentalists. Only weeks later, BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, releasing 134 million gallons of oil into the gulf.

As time has passed, oil interests have regained momentum and now have an ally in Trump as well as complete Republican control of Congress.

"We must particularly look to and embrace the future development of domestic sources of oil and natural gas in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico," the American Petroleum Institute said after Trump's announcement. "Exploration in this area is critical to our national security and we continue to see our neighbors in Mexico and Cuba pursue these opportunities."

In the News Journal piece, Rubio said oil revenue could be used for coastal restoration, hurricane protection, flood control and so on, while only hinting at his support for drilling.

"I believe our nation has been blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and safe and responsible exploration that leverages the latest advancements in technology will create good-paying jobs for workers, lower energy costs for families, and make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy," Rubio wrote.

His support for extending the moratorium is not that surprising, especially given the military uses the gulf for exercises, but it adds weight. Nelson played down any disagreement, though fiercely opposed a move by Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy last year to raise the revenue cap for gulf-producing states and expand the program to South Atlantic states, including North Carolina and Georgia.

"Not since Mel Martinez have we had the two senators together on extending the moratorium another five years," Nelson said of Rubio.

Others say they remain cautious. "It would be a dream come true for API if Florida were included in the revenue sharing," said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida. "It's a way of bribing (state officials): You allow us in your waters, we give you lots of money. It's a pretty strong incentive."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

Sen. Marco Rubio throws wrench into Florida oil drilling debate 05/09/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 10:16pm]
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