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Oil drilling off Florida’s coast looms on the horizon this election season

A moratorium on oil leasing in part of the Gulf of Mexico is set to expire. What would Trump or Biden do?

With voter attention consumed by crises — the pandemic, racism and a fishtailing economy — a decades-long fight over the future of offshore oil drilling in Florida is approaching a critical point.

Even though the spotlight has faded since the “drill, baby, drill” days of elections past, those who have spent years lobbying say the prospect of new drilling has not seemed nearer since before the Deepwater Horizon spill.

A moratorium on oil leasing in most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico planning area is set to expire in two years. The industry sees this as a tantalizing, long-awaited chance to push closer to the Sunshine State, essentially off-limits since the Ronald Reagan era. Opponents hope to extend the ban and quash the companies’ hopes.

Both sides wonder whether the outcome will hinge on the election. President Donald Trump, a friend of the oil industry, has sought “energy dominance” and more American production. Former Vice President Joe Biden has promised no new offshore drilling anywhere.

The entire Florida congressional delegation opposes drilling here, seeing it as a threat to tourism and military operations.

Trump recently gave his word that waters around the state will remain free of rigs. Without a commitment on paper, though, advocates remain anxious. The president could end the pre-deadline angst, issuing a formal memorandum against new drilling around his home state.

Senator Marco Rubio speaks at a rally in Tampa in 2018. [ Times (2018) ]

Florida’s senior senator, for one, is not worried. “When all is said and done, I am confident that the ban on oil drilling off of Florida’s coast will remain in place,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

But not everyone is so certain.

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, an outgoing Naples Republican, said “Democrats get it,” while “Republicans are really embedded with the energy industry.”

Rep. Francis Rooney conducts a television interview last October. [ TOM WILLIAMS | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

“If Vice President Biden wins, we’ll have some wind at our back on getting it done,” said Rooney, who sponsored a bill that passed the House to make the new drilling ban permanent. It has gained little traction in the Senate. “If the president wanted that to happen, it would happen.”

Related: After latest oil drilling report, Florida representatives have questions for feds

* * *

Voters here are rarely in sync about anything.

Oil drilling is an exception.

Most are against bringing rigs closer to shore.

“You can’t credibly say you represent Florida or Floridians if you’re okay with expanding oil drilling offshore,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters.

In 2018, 69 percent of voters passed a constitutional amendment that bans oil drilling in state waters, meaning roughly 3 miles off the Atlantic coast and 10 miles into the gulf. That mostly takes care of rigs people could see from shore.

Related: A decade after Deepwater Horizon, how has Tampa Bay spent its settlement money?

Past the horizon, the main concerns relate to the military and spills. The moratorium boundary for the eastern gulf is roughly the same as a designated space inside which the Department of Defense tests weapons. Lawmakers and administration officials describe this zone as critical for national security.

And beyond Walt Disney World, visitors come to Florida for the beaches, which can be — and have been — besmirched by oil. Opponents of drilling worry further about onshore tentacles of the industry, such as refineries and pipelines, blotting pastel skylines.

The state’s resistance to drilling dates to at least the 1980s, but opponents say their arguments were crystallized in 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon well off of Louisiana blew, spewing tarballs that floated to the Panhandle.

Oil is seen on the water from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Lousiana in May 2010. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP ]

Waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico have been designated off-limits by restrictions in congressional spending bills and presidential decrees, said Tyler Priest, a University of Iowa history professor and expert on U.S. oil. Today’s moratorium stems from a 2006 law and will last through June 2022, unless Congress or the administration makes a move.

The protected area covers more than 100,000 square miles and looks something like an irregular block, squaring off Florida from roughly the western edge of the Panhandle to the outer Keys.

The work of selling offshore leases falls under the Department of the Interior, with sets schedules in five-year plans. The current plan also ends in 2022.

Priest said while he still considers lease sales a long shot, for the first time in many years, the waters closer to Florida are not secured far into the future.

* * *

President Donald Trump speaks to his supporters at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center in The Villages last year. [ Times (2019) ]

Touting an “America first” approach to energy, Trump’s administration has withdrawn stricter oversight of drilling in federal waters implemented after Deepwater Horizon. He most recently pitched opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas companies.

Before him, President Barack Obama sought to expand drilling closer to Florida, as part of his own pitch to increase the country’s energy independence. Following the oil spill, with Biden as his No. 2, he walked back that plan.

Trump’s Interior Department suggested a new draft leasing plan that would see the eastern gulf, the Straits of Florida and the southern Atlantic Ocean opened to drilling. In the proposal, officials wrote that the approach is “consistent with advancing the goal of moving the United States from simply aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance.”

Such drafts typically get thinned out over time. According to the Interior Department, the planning process has been held up by court challenges. Earlier this year, Politico reported the administration wants to drill around Florida but would wait until after the election to release a revised plan, afraid of losing votes. The Department of Interior has denied that report.

After the first draft was published, then-Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke appeared with then-Gov. Rick Scott and said he would take Florida out of the leasing schedule. His words were never backed by an official order. A spokesperson said Scott, now a senator, believes Trump and his administrators “will live up to their commitment.”

On a visit to Florida in recent weeks, the president told a reporter for Spectrum News: “We’re not going to be drilling, and I’ve already put out that order — actually quite a while ago. ... You know, there are some states that don’t mind it, but Florida does. And I live here, too, and I vote here. And I will tell you that’s not going to be happening.”

The administration has not provided an official order. A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said, “The president’s statement on drilling in the eastern gulf speaks for itself.”

Opponents of drilling in the gulf are not reassured.

“We go by things on paper in this world,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation. “You don’t take political statements and hang the coastline and the economy on it.”

Biden during his campaign against Trump has vowed to block new offshore oil drilling.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally in 2018. [ Times (2018) ]

* * *

Draw a line roughly west of Tampa Bay and another south of Pensacola. Where they intersect is a big target of the oil industry, the Norphlet Play. Already, drillers lease some territory on the play in the central gulf, but they believe there is more oil where it stretches past the moratorium line.

“We’re kind of running into the wall where the central and eastern gulf meet,” said Erik Milito, president of the National Offshore Industries Association. “There’s a desire to have incremental opportunities in the eastern gulf to be able to see what that region might hold.”

The oil industry covets the area as the easiest place for expansion because of all the rigs, employees, refineries and pipelines already in place. By contrast, the state’s Atlantic Coast is seen as less of a priority.

“A recovering U.S. economy will need energy,” said Lem Smith, vice president of upstream policy for the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement. “The moratorium places a known and valuable energy resource off the table instead of allowing industry and government to work cooperatively and safely to ensure the country’s energy needs are met and its national security protected.”

This year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry has given more than three times as much to the Trump campaign as Biden’s. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who replaced Zinke, is a former oil and gas lobbyist.

Even while oil prices have bottomed out during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say, companies’ focus remains far into the future. Drillers are banking on continued demand. If leasing opportunities were to open soon, between research surveys, permitting and construction, the actual rigs would still be years away.

Industry leaders say they are looking for a meeting halfway.

Milito suggested a new buffer for Florida, smaller than the current zone, but covering perhaps up to 100 miles from the beach to assuage local concerns. “You could have a win for the Floridians whereby they are getting assurances that drilling would be at a distance that is really not along the coastline,” he said.

That would allow further exploration of the Norphlet Play.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor smiles during an election watch party in 2016. [ Times (2016) ]

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat who has helped craft Biden’s environmental platform, said she doesn’t trust the industry to stop pushing for more.

“They’re never satisfied,” she said.

* * *

Drilling opponents argue that Florida has already seen why rigs cannot move further east. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, they say, happened close to Louisiana but still wrought havoc here.

Tourists canceled bookings. Oil marred the beach in Pensacola. People were fearful of biting into gulf seafood.

Business owners lost money, even where the sheen of oil never appeared. Bartenders and hostesses and people who work in fishing lost work.

Related: Deepwater Horizon: Seven years after explosion and oil spill, study finds cleanup workers got sicker

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, was the Republican governor at the time. He calls it the “ultimate wake-up call.” The year before the spill, Florida state lawmakers were considering a plan to allow drilling in state waters.

President Barack Obama and then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist walk along Casino Beach on Pensacola Beach in June 2010. [ CHARLES DHARAPAK | AP ]

Scientists are still conducting studies to measure Deepwater’s full damage to the environment. Environmentalists also point out that any expansion of oil production is an investment in fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming and climate change.

“We don’t want to lose an inch,” said Diane Hoskins, who directs the advocacy group Oceana’s campaign against offshore drilling.

Related: USF researchers sampled more than 2,000 fish in the Gulf of Mexico. They found oil pollution in every one.

Dave Rauschkolb, a Seaside restaurant owner, founded “Hands Across the Sand” shortly before Deepwater Horizon. The grassroots group asked residents to link hands to create a chain on beaches to protest drilling. A decade later, the organization is still holding the same events.

“It should be a no-brainer,” Rauschkolb said. “But this is a very fiery political atmosphere.”

Public opinion has shifted since the spill.

A majority of people oppose new offshore drilling, 58 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, nearly 80 percent want to see the country focus on growing alternative energy sources like solar power.

Sean Shaw speaks during an election watch party in 2018. [ Times (2018) ]

Oil, however, is not a top-line issue in 2020. Sean Shaw, a former Democratic state legislator and lawyer who represented Panhandle condo owners suffering financial harm after Deepwater Horizon, said the next president will determine the future of the U.S. Supreme Court and set a course for policy on climate change. The country is at a crossroads on so many points.

“There’s a lot more stuff on people’s minds than this,” Shaw said.

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