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Neighbors try to calm Florida's fear of drilling

While Florida wants nothing to do with oil or gas drilling off its shores in the Gulf of Mexico, its coastal neighbors to the west say come on in, the water's fine.

Led by Gov. Jeb Bush, who opposes expanded gulf drilling supported by his brother, President Bush, the Sunshine State wants to protect its Panhandle beaches that help drive Florida's $50-billion tourism industry.

But independent marine experts in Louisiana and Alabama say the offshore industry has caused minimal environmental impacts in their states.

"On the beaches, there's a lot of trash _ barrels and bottles tossed off platforms and boats," said Mike Dagg, director of the Louisiana University Marine Consortium. "But I'd say there's not been a dramatic impact on the ecosystems. It's not pristine, but I'd say fishing and trolling do a lot more damage than the rigs."

Louisiana earns more than $800-million a year from more than 40,000 oil and natural gas wells. Though offshore drilling may have caused minimal problems, refineries and factories related to the petrochemical industry have contributed to the contamination of bayous and fish.

Since 1973, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico have decreased even though production has increased, according to the Mineral Management Service, the U.S. Interior agency that regulates offshore leases. Spills of 42 gallons or less account for 94 percent of the spills in the gulf.

MMS predicts there is between a 5 percent and 37 percent chance that a significant spill of more than 42,000 gallons may occur within the proposed lease area off the Florida coast.

The threat of a major spill affecting Florida waters 30 days after an accident is estimated at 41 percent.

"The industry has been very, very good," said Bob LaBelle, in charge of environmental modeling for MMS. "There's not been a large spill from an offshore facility since 1980."

Hurricane Jeanne in 1980 contributed to an equipment failure off the Texas coast, causing a platform spill of more than 61,000 gallons. That's the last time there's been a platform accident in the gulf of more than 1,000 barrels.

"It's such a politically sensitive issue that I don't think a record from another area will sway" Floridians, LaBelle said. "If you look at the record, it's a pretty good record."

The MMS has levied $5.3-million in civil penalties since 1990. Of 353 cases, 343 occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.

Next door to Florida, Alabama earns about $30-million a year from about 100 natural gas wells _ about a dozen in Mobile Bay and several within sight of beaches on Dauphin Island.

There's been little water-quality impact. But some environmentalists argue that poor air quality has developed because of gas refineries on land.

"We're lucky because it's natural gas," said George Crozier, director of Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the marine research arm for 22 public universities in Alabama. "Every now and then, once a year, maybe less, some barrel will float by."

If the Senate's plan to approve a scaled-down Lease Sale 181 in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast is approved by the House, MMS may conduct a sale later this year. The proposed lease area covers 1.5-million acres.

A separate drilling issue, Chevron's right to explore for natural gas near Pensacola in the so-called Destin Dome, may also conclude within the next two months.

But in the deep parts of Area 181, more than 100 miles from the Florida coast, federal estimates suggest there's potentially 185-million barrels of oil, enough to fuel a million automobiles for six years.

The environmental impact statement on Area 181, written by MMS, suggests no long-term impact to barrier beaches.

"The proposed action is expected to result in small pollution events that could temporarily affect the enjoyment or use of some beach segments in Alabama or Florida," the report said, "but have little effect on the number of beach users or tourism."

J. Steven Picou, chairman of the sociology department at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, said catastrophic accidents on offshore platforms are low-probability events that have high consequences.

"When we take those risks, the consequences could be permanent," said Picou, who has studied the long-term impacts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill.

Near the Texas Gulf Coast on Friday, natural gas uncontrollably began leaking from a rig and forced workers to evacuate.

Incidents like that one pale next to the Valdez tanker spill, or the nightmares of coastal Floridians.

"Once these major modern catastrophes happen, there's really a situation where it could be an event that could never be recovered from, the economy could never be restored, the people may never recover," Picou said.