Ten years ago, when tar balls stained Pensacola beaches, we saw exactly how detrimental offshore drilling is to our coasts, our economy and our way of life. Today, the threat of drilling risks our military readiness and defense industry, too.
The oil globs came from a blowout deep in the Gulf, where BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and took the lives of 11 workers. Deepwater Horizon was 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, relatively far away from the Florida coast – and yet still impacted our beaches, tourist industry and military operations. A decade later, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is still a painful reminder of the dangers of offshore drilling.
Floridians of all political stripes can agree we cannot let offshore drilling come any closer to Florida’s Coast and risk another devastating oil disaster. Even more present in our minds – we cannot let oil and gas drilling encroach upon the valuable military asset we have in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. As a retired Lieutenant General and Colonel in the U.S. Airforce, we have a collective 61 years of military service and deeply understand the importance these waters for both our national security and coastal way of life in Florida.
Well before the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, Congress enacted the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which put a moratorium on oil leasing in areas of the Gulf that are critical for protecting Florida’s way of life and military preparedness. These protections from offshore drilling preserved unconstrained access for military training and testing activities that are essential to national security. Totaling 101,000 square miles in uninterrupted surface and airspace, the Eastern Gulf Test and Training Range Complex is larger than all other training ranges in the continental U.S. combined. No other area in our nation offers the same combination of unrestricted space and adjacent military support infrastructure. Simply put, it’s an irreplaceable asset that serves the entire country.
The eastern Gulf of Mexico has been developed over decades with investments and taxpayer dollars to become the military resource it is today. It would be a grave mistake to throw this all away to pursue offshore drilling. If military access to the Eastern Gulf Test and Training Range dwindles, Florida loses its standing as a prime location for the defense industry to set up bases and house installations. If our state no longer hosts 20 military bases, the defense industry is no longer a major player in Florida’s economy. In 2018, the total economic impact of defense spending in our state approached $95 billion and supported nearly 915,000 jobs.
Eglin Air Force Base, where one of us was the Center Commander for several years, depends on the Eastern Gulf Test and Training Range to complete advanced weapons testing and joint training exercises. In 2017, this base alone supported 25,000 Department of Defense personnel and accounted for nearly $2.5 billion in compensation. These jobs are directly tied to the moratorium protecting this irreplaceable national asset – if the current moratorium disappears or Congress greenlights any further encroachment by the oil industry in the eastern Gulf, our defense jobs and installations could go away, too.
The expiration date for these critical protections area right around the corner – 2022. We cannot wait and see if our elected officials let these protections expire. Instead, we need Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., to ensure that Congress extends existing protections, and ultimately puts a permanent moratorium in place. If not, national security and the continued success of our military hang in the balance.
We cannot afford to be negligent when it comes to our national security and Florida’s special way of life. We can and must protect not only our environment from offshore drilling but also our Gulf Range from encroachment. The best way to do that is by making Florida’s current protections, permanent and reject any proposals that risk offshore drilling coming closer to our critical test range and the shores of Florida.
Losing ground to dirty and dangerous offshore oil drilling would cripple Florida’s defense economy, interfere with weapons testing and subvert combat training that’s essential to prepare our troops for deployment overseas. Our elected officials need to act now, so we don’t lose an inch of Florida’s waters to dirty and dangerous offshore drilling.
Gordon Fornell, Lt. Gen. USAF (Ret.) is a 35-year military veteran holding senior positions in operational command, flight test and acquisition. He flew 200 combat missions in the A-1 in Southeast Asia.
Jim Heald, Col USAF (Ret) is a 26-year military veteran with multiple command positions at Eglin Air Force Base. He was the General Manager of the Eglin Test and Training Complex Operations and Maintenance Contract.