Oil spills recognize no international borders or regulatory boundaries. They show no mercy for tourism economies or pristine beaches. So while Tampa Bay has been spared from the most devastating consequences of major spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the state cannot depend solely on good luck. It's critical that U.S. officials remain engaged with Cuba over who controls a portion of the gulf and what drilling might take place there and that the federal government preserves and extends a drilling moratorium that protects the gulf waters closest to Tampa Bay.
The United States, Cuba and Mexico began negotiating last month on how to divide a portion of the gulf known as the Eastern Gap that could be attractive for oil exploration. As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Paul Guzzo reported Thursday, the United States is expected to own 70 percent of the 7,700 square miles, with Mexico owning 20 percent and Cuba 9 percent. As one expert points out, Cuba's portion could open up waters for drilling that are just on the other side of the U.S. moratorium's imaginary fence. Emphasize imaginary, because that line would not protect Tampa Bay in the event of a major spill in Cuba-controlled waters.
There are multiple political and policy layers to the gulf drilling discussion that should catch the attention of Florida voters. With regard to the Eastern Gap negotiations, it is critical that the United States continue to develop relationships with Cuba rather than turn back the clock as Sen. Marco Rubio and other Republican hard-liners prefer. If the United States cannot persuade Cuba to avoid or severely limit oil drilling in the gulf waters the island will control, it can at least share technology and expertise to prepare to jointly deal with any spills or rig explosions that would threaten Florida. That requires cooperation, not fighting the opening of a Cuban consulate in Florida or clinging to the outdated economic embargo.
These negotiations over the Eastern Gap also reinforce the importance of keeping and extending the moratorium in eastern gulf waters that bans drilling within 235 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles of the Panhandle. That ban expires in 2022, but even maintaining it requires constant vigilance by Florida's congressional delegation. Just last year, Sen. Bill Nelson blocked a move by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to allow rigs as close as 50 miles from Florida's Gulf Coast. Drilling supporters argue that oil drilling is safer since the 2010 BP oil spill, which fouled more than 100 miles of Florida's coastline and created a slick the size of South Carolina. But the risks of drilling far outweigh any benefits from reducing the size of the protected area.
Nelson has been a strong protector of the drilling moratorium, but Rubio hedged during his presidential campaign and did not help Nelson last year to block the latest threat. U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, also have been strong supporters of the ban. Castor has introduced legislation to make the moratorium permanent and extend it into the Florida Straits and along the Atlantic Coast, and Jolly has sponsored legislation that would extend the moratorium through 2027. Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who long opposed off-shore drilling before wavering amid high gas prices in 2008 as he hoped to become Republican presidential nominee John McCain's running mate, reaffirmed his opposition after the 2010 BP oil spill. Now a Democrat, Crist is expected face Jolly in the November general election for the 13th Congressional District that covers Pinellas from Clearwater south.
The positions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the existing moratorium are less certain. The Democratic nominee has expressed general opposition to drilling off Alaska and the East Coast and wants to move away from fossil fuels and emphasize clean energy. Trump wants to increase oil production but has taken no position on the gulf moratorium. Both candidates should make their positions clearer before the general election.
Better relations with Cuba, U.S. energy policy and the existing drilling moratorium are all issues affecting Florida and Tampa Bay. The state's coastline and beaches are environmental treasures and keys to a healthy economy, and voters should demand specific answers from candidates about how they will protect them through their positions on these policy issues.