POLL: Lawmakers split: Should Gulf oil spill end Florida offshore drilling debate?

Should the state Legislature debate oil drilling next year?

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Trudi Williams

Trudi Williams

Dave Aronberg

Dave Aronberg

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— When discussion of offshore oil drilling in state waters was tabled in April by the Florida Legislature, state Rep. Dean Cannon promised to renew the discussion next year.

It may be a different conversation altogether when it comes up again — if it comes up at all.

Cannon’s proposal to open state waters to drilling 3 miles off the Florida coast was shelved four days before an oil rig explosion jarred the Louisiana coastline, killing 11 people and spewing thousands of barrels of crude oil into Gulf waters each day.

Cannon’s office released a statement this week in which he agreed with Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s call for a full investigation of the spill.

“Until we have all of the facts and all the answers about what happened and why, we cannot and should not move forward,” Cannon, R-Winter Park, said in the written statement.

Local legislators say the debate around drilling in Florida’s state waters will never be the same.

“I’m sure this completely changed the way people are going to look at this,” said state Rep. Trudi Williams, a Republican whose district covers Lee County and part of Collier County. “I’m an engineer, so I can’t imagine there weren’t (underwater) shut-off valves. ... I think everybody is really going to take a good look at this. Offshore drilling done right is a good thing.”

She wouldn’t go so far as to say she strictly opposes offshore drilling now, but said oil rig operators and owners will have to demonstrate better use of safety measures before she would even consider allowing drilling in state waters.

Southwest Florida’s state senators, Democrat Dave Aronberg and Republican Garrett Richter, belong to different parties but shared the same sentiment: public memory of the oil spill, and its potential effects on Florida beaches, will not easily fade.

“I think because of the current circumstances, that offshore drilling is not going to be a topic anyone will want to pick up,” Richter, of Naples, said of future legislative sessions. “I think that certainly public opinion was not overly supportive to begin with, and now with the circumstances that we’re under right now, I don’t think there will be any political appetite for it.”

A January poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut showed that 53 percent of Floridians were opposed to drilling within 5 miles of the Florida coast; on the other hand, it showed 55 percent of Floridians supported drilling in federal waters farther off the coast.

President Barack Obama announced a plan to lift the federal offshore drilling ban just last month, but has since said the proposal is on hold pending an investigation of the rig collapse and subsequent oil leak.

“It exposes the myth that we were being told that offshore oil drilling is risk-free,” said Aronberg, whose cross-state district includes south Lee County. “I think that all along, I’ve been calling for a slowdown to this rush of ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ and I think nothing proves this point better than this disaster.”

Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said it is too soon to speculate on long-term policy implications. The Florida Petroleum Council supports drilling in federal and state waters.

“The Legislature adjourned just last Friday,” Mica said. “Right now the industry’s focus is on the response to this. ... We as an industry know the reality is that we have to supply Florida with 25 million gallons of gasoline and 9.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day for the foreseeable future. Large amounts of that resource come off of Florida’s coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re going to need to explore, develop and produce oil and gas for Florida.”

State Rep. Tom Grady, a Naples Republican, said the discussion of drilling in state waters needs to continue.

“I think anyone that has gotten in their car and driven anywhere since the tragedy needs to be willing to entertain the discussion,” Grady said, referring to rising gas prices. “We continue to close our eyes to the reality that people need oil and gas.”

But fellow Rep. Matt Hudson said the reality seems to be that a state drilling plan will not materialize for years to come — he said it likely will take that long to complete an investigation into the explosion. He lamented the loss of human life from the explosion, and said he feared that is being overshadowed in the discussion of environmental effects.

“I think this issue certainly brings a heightened awareness to the fact that things can happen,” said Hudson, a Naples Republican. “And we need to make sure the technology is there to make sure it doesn’t happen again. ... The practical side of it is we won’t have all of the answers for a very, very long time.”

All of this adds up to one thing that members of Southwest Florida’s legislative delegation can agree on: discussion of drilling for oil in Florida’s waters likely will be put on hold until the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion can be investigated, and better safeguards put into place.

“Depending on what happens, we may be dealing with the remnants of this for a decade from now, two decades from now,” Richter said.

Even if worst-case scenarios don’t come to pass, Aronberg said, memories may be short in politics: “But I think that this one is going to last a while longer in the consciousness of the people of Florida.

“We still have budget problems, but I think the people of Florida will remember this for a long time.”

__ Connect with reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale

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