A Times Editorial

Florida should forget about drilling in gulf

Drilling off Florida's coast won't increase America's independence from foreign oil, lower gasoline prices or raise billions of dollars annually for the state. • Those are among the predictable findings of a new nonpartisan report on offshore drilling commissioned by the Florida Senate president. It is inconceivable that any responsible state lawmaker still would consider leveraging the state's pristine shoreline — and the tourism customers it draws — for such little return. Yet Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, who is in line to be the next House speaker, is doggedly pushing a plan that could put drilling platforms within 10 miles of the west coast.

The report produced by a Tallahassee think tank offers some of the best information yet to refute the propaganda from an anonymous oil industry group, Florida Energy Associates, that wants Florida's ban lifted. The report shows that the most-generous industry estimates for what Florida could collect from drilling in state and federal waters is far less than $2 billion — the annual amount suggested by the energy group's economist.

The Collins Center for Public Policy produced "Potential Impacts of Oil & Gas Exploration in the Gulf" on behalf of the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, a group set up by the Legislature in 2005 and chaired by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, a Republican. Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, asked the commission to take on the issue late last year due to concerns about a lack of neutral information on drilling.

The 40-page report uses a question-and-answer format to address 31 issues that have arisen since Florida Energy Associates began its push last year. It says the risk of a devastating oil spill off Florida's coasts has greatly diminished due to technology and safety precautions since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. But it also acknowledges the risk remains whether the drilling occurs in state waters close to shore or in the federal waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Most striking: Researchers don't think there is even enough oil in state waters to sustain the country's gasoline needs for a week. Advances in seismic technology may make it easier to find natural gas deposits, the report said. But it's not been tested in either the eastern gulf or near Florida. And harvesting natural gas in Florida would displace American-mined coal as a fuel, not foreign oil. The impact on energy costs would be minimal.

The report also states the obvious: Lifting Florida's ban would make it more likely Congress would lift its 2006 ban on the more profitable resources farther out in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which extends as much as 125 miles from Florida's shore. The industry's endgame may be to get the drilling ban in state waters lifted merely to make it impossible to continue with the ban in federal waters.

But the eastern gulf doesn't have nearly the deposits found in the federal waters of the central and western gulf — the areas that benefit Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. And none of those states have received windfalls anywhere close to $2 billion annually from offshore drilling.

If the federal ban was lifted, Florida's annual share of revenues could be as low as $20 million (based on traditional government estimates) to as high as $180 million (based on industry estimates), according to the report. New jobs would number between 1,000 to 2,500.

The report purposely does not estimate revenues from drilling in state waters, except to say they would likely be less than those of other states with greater deposits. Alabama generates the most income from near-shore production: $200 million a year. What does $200 million buy in Florida? Not much compared to a $66 billion state budget. Or compared to the potential risk to the No. 1 industry, tourism.

Supporters of drilling off Florida's shores are evoking a patriotic duty to solve America's dependence on foreign oil. Cannon warns of riots in the streets if Floridians cannot get food because there is no fuel for trucks to deliver to groceries. But these are the facts: The estimated deposits in Florida's state-owned waters aren't even enough to fuel America's needs for a week, and lifting the drilling ban would provide relatively little money for the state. It would open the beaches and the state's tourism industry to additional risk — regardless of new drilling technology. The Senate has the answers it needs to tell Cannon to forget about drilling.

Drilling in Florida waters

The state owns submerged lands from the coast to 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and three miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Here are some statistics that speak to drilling issues.

100 million

Government estimates of barrels of oil in state- owned water

140 million

Barrels of oil the U.S. uses in a week, or 20 million barrels a day

Unknown

What Florida could collect from drilling in state-owned waters, though experts expect less than other gulf states because of geological formations.

$200 million

Average annual amount Alabama collects for drilling in its state-owned waters — the most of any gulf state.

$189 million

Amount the Florida Lottery is expected to raise this year to enhance the state's education offerings

$66 billion

Florida's 2009-2010 state budget

Source: Potential Impacts of Oil & Gas Exploration in the Gulf, Collins Center for Public Policy; 2009 Florida General Appropriations Act (SB 2600)

Florida should forget about drilling in gulf 03/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 10:05pm]

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