They appeared in the spring, a secretive group trying to upend Florida's longtime ban on offshore drilling by promising millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.
The effort to allow drilling within 3 to 10 miles of the beaches failed to pass the Legislature, but only just. Now emissaries from Florida Energy Associates LLC are touring the state to campaign for overturning the ban at the next legislative session, either this fall or next spring. Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, says he'll sponsor a bill to allow drilling as close as 5 miles offshore.
But if Florida Energy Associates gets its wish, what will Florida get? According to company officials, residents will see:
-Drilling for oil, not gas, but in only limited areas along the Gulf Coast, including off Pasco and Hernando counties and up in the Panhandle. However, there could be no drilling off Pinellas County's beaches, in the Keys or anywhere along the Atlantic coast.
-Blue-collar crew jobs on the rigs, but nothing for supervisors, who will likely be imported from Louisiana. The rigs will also require supplies ferried in by boats, not helicopters.
-Construction work building underwater pipelines - the source of most offshore spills - to carry the oil to Louisiana.
-No refineries, but some onshore facilities such as a plant to separate oil from the pollution-laden water that comes up with it. That could create further debates about where such a facility could be.
M. Lance Phillips, the Texas oilman leading the charge to overturn Florida's ban, says he's sure there's oil within a few miles of the state's white sand beaches.
"It's all in close," he said. "The heart of what we're looking at is in state waters."
Geological studies and legalities indicate the target is the gulf, not the Atlantic coast. But even there, there are obstacles. No one can drill within the state's aquatic preserves, said Doug Daniels, the Daytona Beach attorney representing the oil consortium. That lets out Pinellas County, because the state waters along its famous beaches are part of a preserve.
The Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve up along the Nature Coast would block drilling in state waters from Taylor to Levy counties, and the Charlotte Harbor preserve would bar drilling off Charlotte and Lee counties, Daniels said. The Florida Keys are off-limits too, protected as a national marine sanctuary.
But rigs could go up anywhere else, he said. That would leave Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties open, as well as more tourism-dependent Sarasota and Collier counties and virtually all of the Panhandle.
Drilling in those areas could produce "as much as 16 billion barrels," Daniels said. Although the company has put forward more conservative estimates, "that is more like what we think it would be." That's more than 30 times as much oil as has been produced by the largest field ever found in Florida.
Daniels said the estimates are based on numbers from another company that tried to find oil in Florida's waters, Coastal Petroleum. A tiny company backed by Tampa's powerful Lykes Brothers, Coastal obtained 800,000 acres of near-shore leases stretching from Apalachicola to Naples in 1941. It drilled about 20 test wells from 7 to 10 miles offshore prior to 1968 but came up dry.
So why does Florida Energy Associates think its luck would be any better?
"I'm not going to tell you what we think, but Coastal says they did not drill deep enough and did not drill in the right places," Daniels said. Asked if Coastal - which ended up suing Florida and losing - is part of the Florida Energy consortium, the lawyer blurted, "God, no!"
The only place where lots of oil has been found in Florida is onshore: the Jay oil field in the Panhandle. Over three decades, Exxon pumped more than 425 million barrels from that field. The geologist who found it in 1970, Charlie Meeks, is now working for Florida Energy Associates.
"We think there's a lot of opportunity for production there," Meeks said. "The geology is all solid. But you know how oil is - you got to find it."
Daniels says if the prediction of 16billion barrels is accurate, that would create 231,000 new jobs.
Most of those would be on the rigs as crew members. Phillips said each rig would need about 150 people. But supervisors need to be experienced, so they would be imported from existing crews elsewhere, Daniels said.
There are also jobs supplying the rigs. These rigs would be too close to shore to justify using helicopters, he said, so instead boats would carry supplies and people back and forth. Phillips said there would be "a huge demand for divers" to inspect the rigs, too.
Many oil industry jobs are in refineries, but "there's no refinery that's going to be built onshore" in Florida, Daniels said. Instead, he said, the oil would be refined at existing facilities in Louisiana.
Getting the oil there would require building pipelines, which means construction jobs. Pipelines were the source of most of the 3,898 barrels of oil that, on average, spilled from U.S. offshore drilling every year between 1998 and 2007, according to Doug Morris of the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association. The pipelines off Louisiana are particularly old and in need of repair, he said.
Depending on where around Florida's coast the drilling occurs, the pipelines could either bring the oil onto land here to be piped overland to Louisiana, Daniels said, or a pipeline could be built to hook up with the existing pipelines now off Louisiana.
There would still be a need for onshore facilities. Pipe companies "will be setting up yards to sell all of the various kinds of pipe and fittings the industry needs," Phillips said.
Meanwhile rigs often produce as much water from underground as they do oil, which means a need to build a plant to separate the oil from what the industry calls "produced water," Daniels said.
Loaded with chemicals and heavy metals, produced water is the oil industry's largest toxic byproduct. Once it's separated from the oil, it's either trucked to desalinization and treatment facilities or pumped into wells deep underground for disposal.
Finding an area to build such a plant - perhaps at Port Tampa or Port Manatee on Tampa Bay - and getting the permits for disposing of the radioactive water, could pose a challenge for the oil companies.
Another option: drilling diagonally from an as-yet unselected onshore location to the offshore lease site. That puts the rig on land - again, in an industrial area. Phillips said no one would see it.
"Here in Texas we are drilling in school yards in downtown Fort Worth and other than during the month or so drilling phase, you would be challenged to even find the locations," Phillips said. "There are hundreds of people playing golf right now through courses with wells on them that they don't even know exist."
According to Florida Energy Associates, the state's residents should embrace a future of nearshore drilling.
"We really do want to do for Florida," Phillips said, "what oil and gas has done for Texas."
Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Backers say plan would ...
-Create an estimated 231,000 blue-collar crew jobs.
-Create construction work building underwater pipelines - the source of most offshore spills - to carry oil to Louisiana.
-Create diving jobs to inspect rigs.
-Include some onshore facilities that could affect rig sites, but no refineries.
16 billion Potential barrels of oil.
425 MILLION Barrels Exxon pumped over three decades from Jay oil field in the Panhandle, the only place onshore oil has been found in Florida.
3,898 Yearly averagebarrels of oil spilled from U.S. offshore drilling yearly from 1998 to 2007, mostly from pipelines.