1. Opinion

Jolly: Protect, extend drilling ban off Florida's coast

Pinellas County is a remarkable coastal community with a richly diverse quality of life that relies on both a sound economy and a beautiful natural environment.

Each day throughout the Tampa Bay area individuals and families take to our beaches, our open gulf waters, our estuaries, and our inland tidal basins and bayous. We swim, walk the beaches, boat, dive and fish for an incredibly bountiful and healthy fish and shellfish stock. We watch with amazement when we see dolphins, rays, diverse seabirds and a gulf sunset that attracts millions of visitors from around the globe who contribute annually to our regional economic growth.

But these opportunities might not be here today if history had written a different story for us. For decades our state and our nation has debated how to balance protecting our oceans, marine life and coastal environment with responsibly achieving energy security. While our energy future may very well come to be based on renewable and alternative sources, today we still rely heavily on oil to meet our energy needs. And we face the ongoing challenge of balancing our national reliance on domestic offshore oil production with our rightful desire to protect and preserve our shores.

Through bipartisan leadership that has spanned decades, Florida has achieved that balance.

From Republican representatives like my predecessor, C.W. Bill Young, and Pinellas County's Mike Bilirakis, to Democrats such as former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and current U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, our state leaders have consistently stood united to preserve the Gulf of Mexico and protect our communities from the impact of drilling activities, while still responsibly increasing investments in domestic energy. This has come in the form of a 32-year moratorium on oil drilling off the coast of Florida.

The modern legacy of prohibiting oil exploration in the eastern gulf began in 1983 as part of an annual budget bill. This provision, which prevented any government approval of expanded leases off the Gulf Coast of Florida, continued in subsequent federal spending bills each and every year through the thoughtful leadership and dogged advocacy of our state delegation. By 2006, there was sufficient support to establish in law a moratorium through 2022.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to one of our nation's greatest supplies of oil. Federal law manages gulf energy resources in three planning regions: the Western Planning Area off the coast of Texas, the Central Planning Area south of Louisiana and Mississippi, and the Eastern Planning Area that hugs the coastline of Florida from the Panhandle down to the Keys. States in the Western and Central regions have embraced near-shore oil drilling as part of their regional economy. Today the Western and Central regions have nearly 1,000 active producing leases and more than 3,000 additional leases that have yet to be tapped for oil.

In the Eastern region off Florida's coast, there are zero producing leases, and none are needed. Gulf drilling activities in the Western and Central gulf meet today's energy demands and are capable of meeting tomorrow's.

The Florida delegation, past and present, has created and preserved Florida's gulf drilling moratorium. But without action, the future beyond 2022 is uncertain. For this reason, I introduced this week with my colleague from North Florida, Rep. Gwen Graham, legislation to extend the current moratorium an additional five years, through 2027.

Why is this necessary? Because in the name of energy independence, some members of the House and Senate would prefer the current moratorium be abolished. In fact, legislation has already been introduced to do just that. Without action and aggressive advocacy by our Florida delegation, this moratorium will be overturned or allowed to expire.

We can achieve energy independence and national energy security without compromising the natural resources of the Eastern gulf and without jeopardizing our beautiful Florida coast. The economic and energy benefits of expanded drilling in the Eastern gulf simply do not outweigh the risks. The bottom line is this: States bordering the Western and Central Planning Areas have embraced near-shore drilling and those leases contribute today to our nation's growing energy independence.

But Florida has said no, and we should continue to say no. Our quality of life and our regional economy depend on continuing the important legacy created by those who have come before us.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, represents a portion of Pinellas County. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.