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A Times Editorial

Oil drilling frenzy puts Florida at risk

After more than two decades of political consensus on offshore oil exploration, $4 gas and two pandering presidential candidates have put Florida's coast in imminent danger. Congress may take up a plan as early as next month that would put rigs as close as 50 miles from shore, and every Florida representative needs to stand up and be counted.

Is more drilling really the solution?

Though a comprehensive energy policy might reasonably include more domestic production, there is nothing comprehensive about the deal now being offered by the U.S. Senate's so-called Gang of 10. The plan is being sold as a way to break the partisan gridlock, but it is mostly a grab-bag of tax breaks. While it does establish some conservation goals and push new technologies for vehicles, it leaves the more substantive work to a newly appointed energy commission.

As for Florida, the plan would renege on a congressional deal made just 20 months ago. That compromise added some 8.3-million acres off the state's Gulf Coast to the oil industry's inventory in return for a coastal buffer zone of between 125 and 234 miles. The deal was supposed to last until 2022.

Not much has changed since that 2006 vote, certainly not the potential danger to the state's $65-billion tourist industry or the nation's ongoing need for alternatives to foreign oil. But the price of gas has certainly changed. In turn, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain and presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama both reversed course on drilling. They were against it before they were for it.

Those reversals have set the stage for a White House raid on oil-drilling regulation. President Bush lifted the executive ban signed by his father. The Interior Department has moved to prepare plans for drilling off the entire U.S. coast. The Defense Department has suddenly expressed less concern about drilling in the same gulf waters it uses for air and sea operational training.

The next step, which could happen after Labor Day, would be for Congress to betray Florida. That's the effect of the deal being offered by the Gang of 10, and no member of the Florida delegation should be allowed to pretend otherwise.

The stated rationale for this sellout is that Congress must deal with the emergency of skyrocketing gas prices, but everyone knows that's fiction. A report last year by Bush's own Energy Department said new drilling "would not have a significant impact" on prices until at least 2030. In the past eight years, in fact, oil drilling permits on public lands have increased nearly fivefold while gas prices have only continued to increase.

McCain has become so fixated on domestic drilling that he is starting sounding like an Exxon executive: "We have to drill here and we have to drill now and we have to drill immediately.'' He is even airing a commercial that features footage of an offshore oil rig silhouetted against the setting sun, accompanied by acoustic guitar music, as though it was at one with nature. Is that really a winning image? As for Obama, his "yes, we can'' mantra now applies to offshore drilling.

Florida officials had better stand at attention here. Without some congressional backbone, this state is about to get drilled.

Oil drilling frenzy puts Florida at risk 08/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:54pm]

    

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