America’s offshore oil lobby is circling like sharks

By: - July 5, 2018 7:30 am

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In the Crazy Town political atmosphere we now inhabit, you can get whiplash trying to follow the bouncing slime balls. Or, in this case, tar balls. Because when it comes to bizarre politics, look no further than the Florida coast and the prospect of oil rigs offshore.

The latest drama started at the first of the year when Trump abruptly announced that he wanted to open nearly all of U.S. waters to new offshore oil drilling leases – including off Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  Seeing new maps that purported to open new drilling areas in waters off the Florida Keys and elsewhere was weird enough (Trump and his wealthy supporters have mansions along on those beaches) but it got even stranger when Republican Gov. Rick Scott held a meeting at the Tallahassee airport with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, emerging with the pronouncement that Florida was now “exempt” from Trump’s new American offshore drilling expansion.

At which point all the other governors of coastal states issued a collective “Huh?” and started asking “Can we be exempt too?”

Folks who understand the fine points of law around offshore oil drilling say the political theater of Florida’s special exemption is just that – theater. There are actual laws around these issues and you can’t just give one state a hall pass from Coastal Oil Spill 101 on a whim. But this is politics. Gov. Scott is Trump’s ally and since our governor is running for Congress, Scott has a new goal of making his terrible eight-year environmental record somehow look less awful. Maybe Trump and Scott thought the other coastal states wouldn’t notice?

“That proposal was an example of Trump’s shock and awe,” says Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone, adding that the oil industry is likely hoping the political gambit will end up with a “compromise” plan that would expand drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico – the territory drillers really want (and have been angling for since Ronald Reagan was president.)

Interior Secretary Zinke’s airport absolution was odd enough, but then this happened: In June, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives put forward a proposal to fine any state that tried to protect its coast by restricting offshore oil drilling. This is one of the most shameless moves by Congress ever on behalf of oil lobbyists, and there’s a lot of shameless going on.

The brazen proposal called ‘‘Enhancing State Management of Federal Lands and Waters Act’’ says that states would be allowed to prohibit oil rigs on as much as half the drilling lease areas off their coasts without getting fined by the feds. Add any more protection (like a drilling ban) and states would get fined millions. The icing on this manure cake: The federal government gets to decide how big the state fines would be, estimating lost revenue from imaginary oil sales in the future – a metric about as clear as a slicked swamp.

When news of the punish-states oil bill surfaced, coastal protection groups sprang into action, deluging Washington with phone calls, letter and emails.

“People let their elected leaders know that they will not stand for having their state penalized for trying to protect their tourism and coastal economies,” said Jacksonville Beach resident Erin Handy, who is the Southeastern Field Campaign Manager for the nonprofit group Oceana. “What we have is out-of-state members of Congress pushing for drilling off the coast of Florida. It should be called the ‘Holding Coastal States’ Rights Hostage Act.’”

Ever vigilant for the whiff of political opportunity, the petroleum industry is taking advantage of Washington’s oil -friendly climate. They’ve formed a new lobbying initiative “Explore Offshore” focusing on the Southeastern U.S. coastline. The industry got two retired U.S. military officials to chair it (more on that later,) and has been running along the coasts trying to convince beach town officials and skeptical state politicians that drilling for oil off tourist-filled coastlines is a Great Idea. Specifically, they are working to “dispel false concerns opposition groups have raised in their communities,” according to an article in Oil & Gas Journal.

It’s been eight years since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and people living in the Florida Panhandle,100 miles away from the leaking oil rig, still shudder at the memory of black, sticky tar balls soiling the white sugar sand. Scientists at the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity estimate the spill killed at least 82,000 birds, harmed or killed more than 6,000 sea turtles and up to 25,900 marine mammals, including dolphins and whales. Dolphins experienced stillborn offspring, and the effects on generations of other ocean dwellers – including species consumed as seafood – are still emerging.  Eleven oil workers lost their lives and 17 were injured when the rig exploded.

So, yeah, communities have “concerns” and they’re not exactly false.

One of the most high profile politicians in Florida today, Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, led the charge in 2006 to allow oil drilling as close as 50 miles off Florida’s coast. Putnam was a young congressman then, and his move was a major betrayal of the once united, bi-partisan opposition to any drilling anywhere off Florida’s coastline. His efforts failed in large part because two Florida U.S. Senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, stood firm in opposing Putnam’s effort to sell out our coast to Big Oil.

A dozen years have passed and Putnam this year spoke out against Trump’s plan to open more waters off Florida to drilling. The man challenging Putnam in the Republican primary for governor, Ron DeSantis, also says he opposes the president’s oil drilling proposal. Every Democratic candidate running for governor has come out against offshore oil drilling. And the two men running to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate – sitting Sen. Bill Nelson and Gov. Scott – say they are opposed as well. Nelson has fought against offshore oil drilling near Florida for decades. 

It’s an election year, after all, and candidates know offshore oil drilling is about as popular in Florida as closed-toed shoes. But coastal advocates remain wary, since political allegiance to Big Oil can quickly shift with the winds.

Rick Scott, for example, has been “very careful with how he states things to allow himself wiggle room to accept compromise,” says Sierra’s Jackalone.

Jackalone and others point out that despite the push for more drilling, oil’s dominance is on the wane, with the growth of electric vehicles and other renewable energy sources.

“We don’t need to jeopardize Florida’s economy when we have alternatives to dirty oil and gas energy sources,” says Susan Glickman, Florida Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

One constant back-stop to the push for more offshore oil drilling in Florida and elsewhere has been the military – officials say allowing frilling operations near coastal bases compromises security. But quiet negotiations have been ongoing to carve out a deal with the military that would allow some offshore areas to be opened up to oil rigs in certain zones, says Mark Ferrulo, Executive Director of Progress Florida, an umbrella group that focuses on progressive causes.

“The military would be making a deal with the devil and Florida’s coastal economies would really pay the price,” Ferrulo said.

A look at the co-chairs of the new petroleum lobbying group Explore Offshore offers a clue to the end game. They are Former Navy Secretary James Webb and former U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson.

All of the national posturing on offshore oil drilling has to do with federal waters – which begin 10.3 miles off Florida’s Gulf coast and three miles off our Atlantic coast.  Florida’s near-shore waters (from the coast to 10 miles out) are a different story; there’s been a ban on drilling in the nearshore waters for decades. But that ban, too, has been in jeopardy. 

In 2009, after a phalanx of oil lobbyists and industry public relations spinners flooded the Capitol in the last week of the legislative session, the Florida House of Representatives actually passed a bill to allow nearshore oil drilling. Cooler heads prevailed in the Florida Senate, and the measure died. The ban remains in place.

Now, this fall, Florida voters will get a chance to enshrine that coastal protection drilling ban in the state Constitution.  The measure, Amendment 9, is “bundled” with another measure – one to ban people from vaping e-cigarettes in public places. Activists are mulling a combined clean air-clean water message when they talk about Amendment 9. Since the ballot is likely to be a long one Nov. 6, Susan Glickman, Florida Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says voters should “Take their time and Vote for 9.”

“We believe the vast majority of Floridians do not want oil and gas drilling in the state’s coastal waters,” says Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the group that drafted and pushed Amendment 9.  “We think our chances are quite good,  but of course we don’t know the level of opposition and resources  the other side will put into it. We don’t care. We’re going to go ahead.”

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.