Now Gov. Charlie Crist wants to rethink his views on oil drilling. Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon wants to call time-out. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson wants a federal investigation. If it stops the rush to drill off Florida's beaches, there ultimately may be a silver lining in the huge oil slick heading for the Gulf Coast.
Cannon, R-Winter Park, and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, have argued for two years that offshore drilling is safe — so safe that oil rigs should be allowed within 3 miles of the Florida coast. Now oil from last week's deadly explosion of the rig Deepwater Horizon has spread in an area 48 miles long and up to 80 miles wide, and where it lands depends upon the prevailing winds and ocean currents. It's less than 80 miles from Florida's Panhandle beaches, and it could wind up in the Florida Keys or the state's Atlantic Coast. That sort of threat is apparently what it takes to open the closed minds in Tallahassee.
The rig is relatively modern technology, owned by the largest offshore drilling contractor in the world. But the Coast Guard had no idea in the early hours after the April 20 blast that Deepwater was leaking oil. The fire caused the rig to sink; 11 crew members are missing and presumed dead. As of late Tuesday, efforts to seal the leak using submersible robots had failed. If industry leaders and the best equipment cannot prevent or contain a rig disaster offshore, then the technology is hardly safe. It certainly makes no sense to bring these operations even closer to Florida's beaches.
Politicians in Tallahassee and Washington now are scrambling to get out in front of this mess. Crist said it appeared the Deepwater operation — which was 13 times farther from land than what Cannon's proposal would require for Florida — was not safe, clean or far out enough. "If this doesn't give somebody pause, there's something wrong," the governor said. Cannon said the disaster raised questions that need to be addressed "before we make any further decisions.'' No kidding.
Nelson, who has been a strong defender of Florida's coastline, was right to call for a federal investigation. The Obama administration launched one late Tuesday, and there needs to be a clear understanding of what happened and what can be done to lessen the risk it will happen again. But the pictures should be enough for Nelson to oppose the president's plan to allow more drilling in federal gulf waters.
In the short term, Florida and other coastal states can only hope for the best. In the long term, perhaps some minds will change. This disaster underscores that oil rigs do not need to be seen from shore to pose a threat to the coastal environment. There are no oil royalties worth risking the state's tourism industry and its beaches. Too bad it took 42,000 gallons of crude a day spilling into the gulf for Florida's leadership to contemplate that reality.