Editorial: Marco Rubio wrong to seek oil money for Florida

Dangling money aims at weakening Florida’s resolve on gulf oil drilling.
Dangling money aims at weakening Florida’s resolve on gulf oil drilling.
Published May 12, 2017

Sounds enticing on its face: Give Florida a slice of the revenue that other states along the Gulf of Mexico derive from offshore drilling. But this measure proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio is the same tired Trojan horse that the industry has floated for years to try to expand oil drilling nearer Florida's coast. It would be a dangerous tradeoff that puts short-term interests ahead of Florida's long-term economic and environmental health, and state leaders should reject it and work toward extending the drilling ban in the eastern gulf.

Rubio has filed legislation that would extend the ban on eastern gulf drilling to 2027, joining an effort already proposed by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and a bipartisan group in Congress. The Miami Republican's measure also would enable Florida to receive a share of revenue generated by gulf drilling. Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama share 37.5 percent of offshore revenue, but that has been capped at $500 million annually. Rubio said the move "would give Florida a new source of funding" in recognition of the risks that drilling poses to Florida.

It's hardly that innocent. By dangling money before the state, proponents are trying to weaken Florida's resolve on drilling. A congressional deal now bans drilling in federal waters within 235 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles of the Panhandle through 2022. But giving Florida an equity stake in drilling in the central and western gulf would undercut the state's credibility in calling for extended protections in federal waters to the east.

This is straight from an old playbook. A future Florida House speaker filed bills in 2009 and 2010 that would have allowed drilling in state waters, which extend about 10 miles into the gulf and 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Though the bills stalled, President Barack Obama announced a sweeping plan to expand drilling in the eastern gulf in March 2010, only weeks before the BP oil disaster. That catastrophe was the only thing that sapped the momentum for new drilling by the federal and state governments. Weakening the protections in Florida have always been key for attacking the moratorium in federal waters.

"You get the camel's nose under the tent and suddenly, the camel is in the tent," said Nelson, who played a lead role, along with Florida's other then-senator, Republican Mel Martinez, in the 2006 deal that installed the moratorium.

Rubio suggested the money could help Florida with coastal restoration and flood control. That sounds good, but revenue sharing would still be at the will of the Congress, and there is no guarantee the federal government would spend the revenues on what was promised. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama pledged to direct these revenues to coastal restoration. He later backtracked and sought to end revenue sharing and to reallocate drilling royalties to conservation projects across the country. Florida easily could have nothing to show for this tradeoff but an environmental disaster in the making.

The energy industry would be the only winner in signaling to Washington that Florida is no longer a no-drill state. Florida should push instead to extend the ban on drilling in the eastern gulf beyond 2022. That would protect the state's economy, strengthen its natural resources and help to improve the safety of military training in the gulf. The allure of dollar signs is a shiny distraction, and Florida would regret taking the bait.