Florida needs more than a temporary congressional deal to protect its coast from another BP drilling disaster. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has filed a bill to make permanent a moratorium approved by Congress in 2006 that bans drilling in federal waters within 235 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles of the Panhandle. That ban expires in 2022. The buffer is essential to protect the state's economy, and it includes airspace that is vital for military training. Congress should make it permanent.
Federal officials still cannot estimate with any authority how much oil is spewing from the broken wellhead more than two months into this disaster. Two million gallons a day could be gushing from the site. Sheets of matted oil have washed up along miles of Pensacola Beach. A third of the gulf is off-limits to fishing. High seas from Hurricane Alex pushed oil and tar farther onto the Panhandle beaches. Florida may have lost billions of dollars in tourist revenues already, and a permanent fix could still be weeks away.
Lawmakers need to adopt a range of measures in response to this spill, from diversifying the nation's energy supply to putting real teeth in federal regulations to responsibly manage offshore drilling. But it also is essential to ban these operations in waters near Florida. The gulf has 5,000 production wells and 6,600 active leases. Even the 2006 deal opened up more gulf waters to drilling. Recovering from this spill will be difficult enough. To rebuild, the tourist and fishery industries will at least need to have the confidence that they are reinvesting in a viable business for the long-term.
President Barack Obama's energy plan would open up more of the eastern gulf near Florida. The Senate energy bill has an opt-out clause that allows states to forgo drilling within 75 miles of shore. But these are buffers on paper. BP's runaway rig is more than 125 miles from Florida, yet its oil is fouling Pensacola Beach. Louisiana may have built an economy on oil, but Florida went in a different direction. It should not continue to be kept hostage by the economic priorities of other gulf states.
Florida's House delegation should support Castor's bill. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also said he is exploring "innovative" ways to permanently ban drilling off Florida. Sen. George LeMieux should join this effort. He has spent a lot of energy bashing BP and the federal government, but it is time he addressed why the threat to Florida existed in the first place. Drilling in the gulf endangers Florida, and the state's congressional delegation should drive home that point in a single voice. If there is any doubt about the impact of an oil spill, just look toward the empty hotel rooms and restaurants this weekend in the Florida Panhandle.