Column: Florida Republican House members call for offshore drilling ban

Published Feb. 14, 2018

Editor's note: This column has been signed by 10 U.S. House Republicans from Florida: Reps. John H. Rutherford, Jacksonville; Gus Bilirakis, Palm Harbor; Vern Buchanan, Sarasota; Ron DeSantis, Palm Coast; Matt Gaetz, Fort Walton Beach; Brian Mast, Palm City; Francis Rooney, Naples; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Miami; Dennis Ross, Lakeland; and Ted Yoho, Gainesville.

As members of Florida's congressional delegation in Washington, we have heard from countless business owners and residents all around our state who are very concerned by proposals to drill and conduct seismic testing off Florida's coasts.

The January announcement of a proposal to open up Florida's coasts to drilling and seismic testing is the most recent threat. If executed, this proposal would impact the Eastern Gulf in 2022 when the current drilling moratorium expires and would affect the Atlantic almost immediately. While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently committed that Florida would be "off the table," as of now the plan to include Florida is still pending.

For this reason, we have introduced legislation to codify in law Zinke's commitment. The PROTECT Florida Act would extend the moratorium on drilling and exploration in the Eastern Gulf and establish a new moratorium on drilling and exploration in the Florida Straits and South Atlantic, off the coast of Florida, through the next two five-year drilling plans.

The recent University of South Florida-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey reinforces Floridians' increasing opposition to drilling activities. Their 2016 statewide survey showed that only 3 in 10 Floridians support drilling off the coast of Florida, while 5 in 10 Floridians believe drilling off the coast of Florida is moving our state in the wrong direction. From our firsthand experience talking with constituents, we suspect this number may be even higher in coastal communities.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the gulf, spanning thousands of square miles, must not be forgotten. Birds, marine mammals, fish and turtles were injured and killed. Beaches, marshes and wetlands were soaked in oil, and fisheries were closed. Even though this rig was off the coast of Louisiana, Florida's economy took a major hit for several months. Vacations, fishing trips and restaurant reservations were canceled from the Panhandle down to the Keys. Deepwater serves as a reminder that Florida remains at risk, even when oil rigs are hundreds of miles from shore.

Apart from the risk of offshore production platforms like Deepwater, we must not forget the onshore industrial infrastructure needed to support offshore exploration and production. Imagine resting on one of our white sand beaches, or swimming in our crystal-clear waters in sight of a farm of obtrusive white tanks full of oil, or having to watch large steel offshore supply vessels navigate and anchor nearby, crowding out our recreational and fishing boats. The barges, workboats, tank farms, pipelines, mooring balls and other equipment that accompany offshore drilling and production are wholly incompatible with our tourism and residential economy.

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This is as much a matter of dollars and cents as preserving the environment. Our beaches drive Florida's more than $100 billion in tourism revenue. Coastal communities and businesses — charter boat captains, hotels, restaurants, recreational outlets, tourist services of all types — all depend on a healthy and pristine marine environment.

Additionally, drilling and exploration activities would have severe impacts on military readiness and training. Military ranges in the gulf and Atlantic are used to test cutting-edge munitions and technologies for our armed forces. Drilling and exploration within these training areas would interfere with vital military activities.

As the Eastern Gulf moratorium nears its expiration in 2022 and actions are underway to expand seismic work in the gulf and the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, legislative action, like passage of the PROTECT Florida Act, is needed now more than ever. Floridians must unite to protect our clean and healthy Florida beaches, ocean ecosystems and coastal communities.