Michael Peltier: Military may be critical ‘no oil’ ally

MICHAEL PELTIER

— Environmentalists, coastal business and tourism-related enterprises have a formidable ally in the fight against offshore drilling in the Gulf that is not normally associated with wading birds and preserving the pristine.

The U.S. military is emerging as a less vocal but potentially critical player in efforts to keep drilling away from Florida shores.

Florida’s eastern Gulf is a veritable gold mine thanks to a handful of firing ranges and other training areas used by the U.S. military and other government agencies for a host of operations from missile tests to mine sweeps.

Last week, military backers told lawmakers the state would be ill advised to do anything that would jeopardize that federally funded golden goose, which the University of West Florida estimates pumps $60 billion and more than 700,000 jobs into the state.

“That makes military spending as critical as tourism,” said Leon Walters, a member of Northwest Florida Defense Coalition, which opposes extensive drilling in the eastern Gulf.

Florida’s northwestern panhandle has been home to U.S. military branches since the 1930s. Eglin Air Force Base, near Pensacola, is the largest airbase in the world. Nearby Tyndale Air Force Base in Panama City and the Naval Air Station in Pensacola all use ranges on the eastern Gulf for weapons testing and other training.

The Navy, too, uses the region extensively for a range of activities from naval gun practice to surface water tactics. The region’s underwater geography closely mirrors that of the Persian Gulf, making the region a critical training ground for potential conflicts in that volatile region.

Speaking to the House Select Policy Committee on Strategic and Economic Planning, Walters said intense offshore drilling in federal waters would significantly restrict that activity. Drilling in state waters (up to 10.3 miles off the coast) would have a significant albeit less extensive impact on military operations.

Last month, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, introduced SB 2622, which would allow the governor and Cabinet to approve oil and gas leases in state waters. A drilling advocate, Haridopolos is expected to become Senate president for the 2011 session.

Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and chairman of the select committee, has taken extensive testimony on drilling in preparation for expected legislation opening up state waters to oil and gas exploration.

Cannon, who filed oil-drilling legislation last year, has yet to introduce a similar measure for the current fiscal year. The Senate recently received a report from the Collins Center for Public Policy at Florida State University on the issue.

The report, written for the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, concluded that hitting oil in the eastern Gulf would not significantly lower the price or increase the supply of oil and natural gas. The report also found the probability of a major spill to be low.

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E-mail Michael Peltier at mpeltier1234@comcast.net

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