State lawmakers expected to discuss oil drilling, but little action expected

MICHAEL PELTIER

Discussion on offshore drilling

Tuesday, February 9th at 5:30pm Jeff Lytle ...

— Expect a lot of talk but possibly little action as lawmakers continue the debate on offshore drilling when they return Tuesday to begin the 2010 legislative session.

With elections looming and a pair of lawmakers waiting in the wings to take on the fight, leaders may choose to put their political capital to use elsewhere as the Legislature faces a $3 billion budget gap and controversial fights over health care, property insurance, economic development and other issues.

A House committee has been meeting for the past several weeks in preparation for debate in that chamber on whether to allow oil and gas exploration in state waters. The Senate, however, is taking a slower approach and just last week received word from its study group.

Local Republican delegates say they continue to support efforts to allow companies to explore for oil and natural gas in waters as close as 10.3 miles of shore. With gas prices still hovering around $3 a barrel and the United States so dependent on foreign oil, they say it’s time for Florida to join other oil producing states.

Drilling, they’ve been convinced, can take place safely and provide Florida with another revenue stream without jeopardizing the state’s coastal tourism industry.

“My position hasn’t changed,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, a member of the House panel studying the issue. “I’ve always been an enthusiastic supporter.”

Senate report shows some risk, minimal gains

A Senate-backed report released last week said drilling in Florida waters would “have no discernible impact” on gas prices or the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, but could pump millions into state coffers.

The report by the Collins Center for Public Policy studied the potential impact of drilling in state waters. The report did not give tax revenue estimates for oil and gas produced in Florida waters, but said other Gulf states have seen annual revenues from $52 million to $200 million over the past several years.

The report concluded the state’s estimated oil reserves — less than 100 million barrels — would satisfy the U.S. demand for oil for less than a week. But the state would benefit much more if drilling were to occur in federal waters in the eastern Gulf, which has been largely devoid of oil and gas exploration in large part due to the Florida moratorium.

“Estimated oil reserves in federal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico are more substantial (a little less than 4 billion barrels),” the report said.

House more enthsiastic

The House last year passed a measure giving the governor and Cabinet the authority to approve leases in the area. Companies would put up a $1 million non-refundable retainer to apply and meet a litany of financial requirements to prove they had the means to explore and do it right.

The measure passed on a largely partisan vote, with Democrats voting against opening up the region. The proposal, however, died in the Senate.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, who is running to become the state’s chief financial officer next fall, has said the Senate will move cautiously on the issue.

Meanwhile, incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who succeeds Atwater after the November elections, is an ardent drilling proponent. His Republican counterpart in the House, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, is equally enthused.

Given such zeal, Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, said the Legislature may be willing to punt on the issue this session and turn its attention elsewhere.

“I don’t think there is as much interest in moving quickly in the Senate,” Aronberg said.

Others, apparently, feel the same way.

Florida Energy Associates, a group spearheading efforts to open state waters to drilling, said last month it was scaling back its lobby efforts for the upcoming session. Last year, it retained 30 lobbyists and spent nearly $250,000 last year to push an oil bill through. This year, the group plans to reduce its stable of lobbyists by nearly two-thirds.

Florida lawmakers have not yet produced a bill for the 2010 session on oil drilling. The House Select Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning is meeting this week to discuss how to craft a bill that provides adequate safeguards while also providing incentives for private industry.

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E-mail Michael Peltier at mpeltier1234@comcast.net

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