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The state of Florida, from all indications, is about to authorize some form of oil and natural gas drilling off the coasts. The Legislature seems to favor the idea, which passed the House overwhelmingly last year. The governor has indicated an interest. Elected officials may be reflecting public sentiment, which has swung over to supporting the idea, boosted by memories of $4-a-gallon gasoline. The polls show that if environmental protection is made a cornerstone, public sentiment swings heavily in favor.

Hard times favor new potential revenue streams, and the forgotten truth is that there has been oil and gas drilling in Florida for generations, including in the Everglades. Other gulf states are prospering from offshore oil and gas revenues, as does even the Audubon Society.

But the public policy process really only begins with lifting the ban that Florida has imposed. The proposals call for the Legislature to authorize the trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund, which is the governor and Cabinet, to establish a program for leasing and drilling. How this decision process unfolds is important. Public input and transparency are vital to both a good result and public confidence in any resolution.

There will be a lot of public policy room between the current policy poles of "hell no, never" and "drill here, drill now." Complex questions of when, where, how, oil and/or natural gas, secondary staging impacts on land, and competing public policy interests - such as compatibility with tourism, fisheries, marine features and military operations - will come into play. The critical question of how to spend the substantial public revenues generated by exploration and drilling will need to be explored more deeply than may be accomplished in a special session of the Legislature, and refinements suggested. And these will play out with the governor and Cabinet, a forum that is more deliberative and better staffed than the Legislature.

What is the best way to confront the issues surrounding a lifting of the ban on exploration and drilling? One way might be a long, protracted, public fight between the existing polarities, only adding a free-for-all version of public participation. Think of the town hall meetings on health care.

We suggest an alternative approach, one modeled after the very successful Water Congress convened by the Century Commission, staffed by the Collins Center for Public Policy Sustainable Florida. Last year this Congress, dealing with water, which is no less politically volatile than drilling, facilitated a serious dialogue among a spectrum of opinions, including both environmental and commercial interests. Significant light was shed, and little if any heat. This same approach could be used for drilling. We propose this as a means to allow reasonable filtering of ideas, while at the same time permitting some distance and dispassion for the decisionmakers.

The beauty of the Water Congress approach was in its objectivity and transparency - something missing from the current conversation. The Water Congress format's strength came in the ability to prioritize consensus-based recommendations to provide the governor and Legislature with actionable items. Supplementing such an effort might be regional focus groups to add to the conversation and weigh strengths and weaknesses of values and principles.

Ultimately, the various interests will need to be applied through a public policy framework. Marine spatial planning seems to be the logical mechanism to be used. This is, essentially, zoning of water, only normally nowhere near to the level of detail in zoning of land. In the same way that we say on land that an activity, say mining, is compatible with public interests in one place but not in a residential neighborhood, we will need to make similar decisions on and under the water. We have been doing this in the Florida Keys almost a decade, with considerable success, with the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary program. Originally viewed skeptically by the locals, it is now embraced by the tourism industry, business community and regular citizens alike. This more thoughtful approach sets up a framework for an ocean management plan to properly evaluate and implement both the protection and development of Florida's marine resources in sustainable ways (meaning our kids get to fish, dive the reef and we a get a little break on energy, to use plain English). The alternative is a free-for-all, where no one is accountable for management of supposedly commonly owned assets, and the result is the loss of the resources belonging to us all.

Florida is poised to make a major public policy shift in the area of oil and natural gas drilling in Florida waters. We can make this move with calmness, thought and deliberation. Or we can just duke it out. We advocate doing it the smart way.

Colleen Castille was formerly secretary of both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Community Affairs. Allison DeFoor was Gov. Jeb Bush's Everglades czar and environmental policy coordinator. They are managing members of a Tallahassee consulting firm.