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DON'T LET THIS COME TO FLORIDA'S SHORES

In a campaign fueled by deep pockets and simplistic rhetoric, a shadowy business group tied to Texas oilmen is peddling its push to drill off Florida's beaches as a call for patriotism, energy independence and fiscal prudence. Even more depressing, many politicians in Tallahassee are falling for it.

Before Republicans started shouting "Drill, baby, drill!" during last year's election campaign, the preservation of Florida's beaches and tourism economy was not a partisan issue. Democrats from Bob Graham to Lawton Chiles and Republicans from Bob Martinez to Jeb Bush stood firmly against drilling. But money talks, particularly during a recession. The oilmen are buying up some of the most prominent media consultants and lobbyists in Tallahassee. They are promising legislators that big money from oil drilling fees can help solve the state's revenue shortfalls - and help lawmakers avoid those tough decisions like cutting more services or raising taxes. Now Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, who are in line to lead their respective chambers starting in 2010, are planning to sponsor the drilling legislation. And just last week U.S. Senate candidate and Gov. Charlie Crist - a former foe of drilling - suggested the Legislature might consider the idea as early as an October special session. This is an oil rush that solves nothing and threatens Florida's beauty and economy.

Risk exceeds reward

Leases and drilling for oil and natural gas have been formally banned in state waters for 20 years. The state has spent millions over that time to reacquire decades-old offshore drilling leases in those waters, which stretch from 3 to 10 miles off the Gulf Coast. Just four years ago, Bush boasted after the final lease was purchased from Coastal Petroleum: "It's easy in the environmental field to rhetorically be proenvironment, to have a nice photo op occasionally and to pound your chest and be a strong supporter of the environment. It's harder to do the work necessary to actually have practical solutions for protection."

Long ago, leaders from both political parties embraced this calculus: The risk of potential damage to the state's beaches and the tourism industry far exceeds any potential gains from oil collection. That hasn't changed, regardless of what the drilling advocates claim about improved technology that may lessen the risk of an oil spill or the potential income the state might receive years from now. Even last week's announcement by energy giant BP that it may have uncovered one of the largest oil deposits in the United States in the western Gulf of Mexico has many asterisks. The Tiber Prospect will take years to tap, if it can even be done 7 miles below the surface. Even then, experts said, its estimated yield of between 4 billion and 6 billion barrels of crude oil would be enough to sustain the United States for only one year.

The most optimistic estimates reveal there is not enough oil in Florida's state waters to lower gas prices or substantially change the country's reliance on foreign oil - contrary to the vision of cheaper gas and energy independence painted by the drilling advocates. What's more, as Graham notes, exhausting the country's fuel reserves, when such resources are available elsewhere and before alternative energy options have been fully developed, would actually increase the threat to national security.

Money, not energy

If Florida caves now and allows drilling so close to shore in state waters, the entire eastern gulf will be wide open. Sen. Bill Nelson and other members of Florida's delegation in Washington won't be able to continue to defend a 2006 congressional compromise that bans drilling in federal waters within 230 miles of Tampa Bay and 100 miles of the Panhandle through 2022. And pretty soon, Florida's coastline will be no better than Louisiana's.

The push to expand drilling off Florida's coasts boils down to money, not energy policy. First and foremost are the would-be investors, who, cloaked in anonymity, are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a multifaceted public relations campaign. Among their nuanced and calculated pitches: Have the Legislature dedicate a portion of the money the state collects from drilling to finance alternative energy development.

Then there are Tallahassee's lobbyists and consultants - many of whom earned taxpayers' salaries in the past by working for previous administrations that fought offshore drilling. They are now willing to risk the state's coastline and economy for a good-paying client, in spite of the good public policy they used to support. And there are Republican legislative leaders like Haridopolos and Cannon who - unwilling to face the harsh fiscal realities of their own tax-cutting decisions in recent years - are intoxicated by the idea that proceeds from oil and gas, like this year's federal stimulus funds, will dig them out of the hole they helped to create. Finally there is Crist, who already has demonstrated he will sacrifice Florida for his political ambitions.

In 2005, Bush and the Cabinet, including then-Attorney General Crist, agreed to pay $12.5-million to buy back the last outstanding offshore drilling leases for Florida waters. It was the right decision then, and it is the right decision now. The proposal before the Legislature to allow drilling within 10 miles of the coastline violates decades of sound public policy embraced by both Republicans and Democrats. Florida's economy and its beaches are not for sale to faceless oil barons - at any price.

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