A Florida House committee on Tuesday passed a plan to allow oil drilling off Florida, despite concerns from environmentalists about its potential dangers.
Supporters claim the state could reap at least $31 billion in tax revenue over the next 20 years if oil production were developed. Opponents say that pales in comparison to the $562 billion a year the state's beaches, coral reefs and coastal waters generate, according to the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council.
Environmentalists and tourism industry officials have long fought offshore drilling, saying the revenue is not worth the potential losses if spills wreck local beaches and destroy the Florida Keys' fragile coral reefs.
"I can't believe it," said Billy Causey, the National Marine Sanctuary Program regional manager and former Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. "Any short-term benefit would not be worth the long-term risks. If there was a spill, you would never make that revenue back. Can we really risk losing $562 billion a year?"
The Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and other waterways support 5.8 million jobs and account for 79 percent of the state's economy, The ocean, reefs and backcountry waters off the Keys generate $1.2 billion a year through fishing, diving, and restaurant and hotel business, Causey said.
While drilling in the sanctuary will never happen, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico could have disastrous effects on the Keys, critics said. The Loop Current, which brings gulf waters into the Keys, could also bring oil and oil slicks in the event of an accident.
"Oil and water don't mix," Key West-based Reef Relief Executive Director DeeVon Quirolo said. "This would be a disaster for Florida. The Legislature should be looking more at pursuing pending legislation on renewable energy."
Vote to lift ban
The House Policy Council voted to lift a legislative ban on drilling in state waters and allow the governor and Cabinet to approve leases as close as three miles off Florida. The proposed legislation, H.B. 1219, heads to the floor. Its Senate companion, S.B. 2294, has yet to have a committee hearing.
Supporters released a Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey showing 59 percent of respondents support drilling off Florida's coast.
"We're giving the governor and Cabinet that chance to have that dialogue with no obligation whatsoever," House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, told members. "But we are taking away the shackles that currently prohibit Florida from not only pursuing energy independence but economic development and security and environmental protection."
The legislation came as a surprise to critics. Tuesday's agenda was not released until late Monday night and the amendment containing the drilling proposal was not available until just before Tuesday's meeting. Supporters were prepared with talking points and background material related to the amendment that opponents had not had a chance to see in advance.
Keys Rep. Ron Saunders said he and other Democrats were surprised by the legislation. In a 17-6 vote, all Democrat committee members voted against it, Saunders said.
"The Republicans knew this was coming and didn't share it with us," Saunders said. "I don't expect it to pass, but we are going to keep our guard up."
Florida law now restricts oil exploration and drilling in state waters, which extend nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Since approved, gas prices have climbed to more than $4 a gallon, but dropped significantly to about $2 a gallon.
Many federal and state officials say it's time for lawmakers to take another look at the rules. The proposal would lift the moratorium on drilling in Florida waters and allow the governor and Cabinet to make the call.
Companies that wanted a lease would have to pay a $1 million nonrefundable deposit to seek state approval. Once a lease were let, competing companies would be able to review it and offer competing proposals.
Proceeds from the leases would fund the Florida Forever land buying program up to $300 million a year, which is its current funding level. The earmarks also include $20 million for local beach restoration and $20 million for local governments in areas affected by the leases, according to the House bill.
"Our reliance on fossil fuel will continue for at least the next generation," said Barney Bishop, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida. "It's time for Florida to become a national leader in energy independence ... and reap the benefits of billions of new revenue dollars."
Critics argued the bill lacked specificity in regard to royalties, severance tax and other payment to the state. Given the dollars involved, those details should be answered, they said.
"Lifting the prohibition does not mean that issuing permits to drill will actually happen," said Martha Barnett, a lobbyist for Florida Energy Associates, a coalition of independent oil companies that wants the moratorium lifted. "It opens up the opportunity for that."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson quickly came out against the legislation.
"I can't believe some Florida lawmakers might actually be serious about allowing oil drilling within 10 miles offshore," Nelson said. "They even want to 'expedite' permits for refineries in coastal communities."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.