Tar balls are once again washing ashore on America’s beaches. A decades-old pipe that began leaking earlier this month off California’s coast in Orange County spilled about 25,000 gallons of oil into the ocean. The catastrophe led to a fishing ban, beach closures and dead fish drifting ashore.
For Floridians, this news brings back horrifying memories of 2010 and the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As that disaster unfolded, Floridians witnessed the threats, firsthand, of offshore oil drilling.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was devastating. It affected our coastal communities, local businesses and greatly harmed the economy. Birds, sea turtles and marine mammals died in heaps from oil exposure. It was truly a dark time for Florida, its wildlife and coastal way of life. Unfortunately, the impacts are still happening in the Gulf, as a result of this horrific tragedy.
Since then, we have been able to fend off attempts to open Florida’s coastlines to offshore drilling. People from across the state have signed petitions, attended rallies, spoken at hearings and called on elected leaders to speak with one voice: There must be no drilling here, not in the Gulf or in the ocean — ever. Florida voters even changed the state Constitution to ban offshore drilling in state waters.
While our work to keep our local offshore waters safe from oil rigs and pipelines was an essential first step, we can’t stop there because oil spills don’t respect state boundaries. When those Deepwater Horizon tar balls rolled ashore on Florida’s beaches in 2010, they came from an oil rig far from our coast in the central Gulf, where leasing for oil and gas is ongoing.
As the California spill reminds us, our sandy shores, wildlife and residents will not be truly safe until we’ve taken the last oil rig out of the water and decommissioned the last pipeline. Like us, Californians have also fought a decades-long battle to protect their famous beaches from drilling. Their efforts paid off to some degree: Since 1984, there hasn’t been a single lease sold off the Californian coast.
But the fossil fuel industry’s long legacy, which began with drilling in federal waters in the 1960s, still menaces the West Coast, with aging infrastructure owned by smaller companies. Decisions made a generation ago led to last weekend’s spill. No doubt the kids whose weekend at the beach was cut short are wondering whatever possessed us to put this risky business off their coast in the first place.
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So by all means, we need to pass permanent protections for Florida’s coasts to ensure an oil rig never approaches our own beaches — something Florida’s members of Congress have been fighting to achieve. But our manatees and sea turtles and our surf shops and boat trips won’t be guaranteed to stay oil-free as long as offshore drilling continues anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
President Joe Biden entered office with the promise that he would stop leasing for oil and gas drilling in our offshore waters, including the Gulf. He should keep that promise because continued leasing is not a short-term concession to a dying industry; it’s a decades-long burden on the ocean, our beaches, and our children. It all but guarantees that they too will face the horror of seeing birds covered in oil and beaches blackened. We need to end leasing for oil and gas drilling now, because a rig placed in our oceans today could mean a spill in 2050.
Robin Miller is the president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, where she works to support businesses, promote tourism and provide a platform for collaboration to enhance the business environment and quality of life in local communities. Kelsey Lamp is the Protect Our Oceans campaign director for Environment Florida, an organization that works to protect the places that Floridians love and promote core environmental values that we share, such as clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and clean energy to power our lives.