Touting more offshore drilling while vowing to protect Florida beaches is just silly

Candidates trying to bash Biden over drilling are tying themselves in knots

August 18, 2022 7:00 am

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the infamous 2010 BP oil spill. The explosion killed 11 rig workers and spewed 210 millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard; Wikimedia Commons

When I was growing up in Pensacola, my parents took verrrrry different approaches to elections.

My dad, a land surveyor, would attend political rallies, slap backs, and laugh at jokes, all to make contacts for his small business. I would beg him to take me along — not because I liked the rallies but because usually someone had fried up a mess of mullet to feed the multitude.

My mom, a bookkeeper, had no use for the politicians and their promises. She referred to the run-up to balloting as “the silly season.” She called it that because our officeholders would say anything, no matter how outlandish, just to get your vote.

A recent headline in the Orlando Sentinel put me in mind of my mom’s term for campaigning. The headline said, “GOP candidates call for more oil drilling, just not near Florida.”

Merely reading that headline gave me a giggle fit. Then came the first paragraph, which put me on the floor:

President Joe Biden. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Florida Republican candidates are slamming President Joe Biden on the campaign trail over his energy policy and high gas prices but at the same time promising to keep drilling away from their state’s coastline.”

This is so silly. It’s sillier than a warehouse full of Silly String. Sillier than a 12-volume songbook of Veggie Tales’ “Silly Songs with Larry.” Sillier than all the silly walks that John Cleese did in Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, put together.

It’s like saying, “I am in favor of the Air Force dropping an atomic bomb on my neighbor’s house — but I promise no radioactive dust will fall on my home.”

They’re supporting something that’s physically impossible.

Twisting themselves into knots

I almost feel some sympathy for these candidates. They are trapped in a bad situation.

The Grand Old Party line these days calls for bashing Biden for high gas prices (which no president can control) and blaming his effort to battle climate change for weakening the American energy industry (even as the oil companies are enjoying record profits).

That way the oil industry will direct some of those big profits toward campaign contributions, which apparently Republican candidates need right now the way a starving man needs a steak. (Thanks, Sen. Rick Scott, for doing such a bang-up job of fund-raising that you’ve had to cancel a bunch of noxious political ads!)

The problem is, hardly anyone in Florida wants to see a derrick erected off Naples, Cedar Key, or Panama City. We fear what happens when something — as often happens with humans and machinery — goes wrong.

That means the candidates are stuck. They have to call for more drilling while at the same time promising to protect our shores. They have to tie themselves up in more knots than a contortionist convention playing Twister.

Jack Davis. Credit: UF

The second you give the argument any thought, you realize how ridiculous it is. And it’s not just that new drilling — which the industry admits will take at least a year to start producing oil — won’t affect today’s gas prices.

No, it’s that offshore oil drilling’s impacts don’t just plop down by the rig in the Gulf of Mexico and stay put, according to Jack E. Davis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his magnificent “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.”

“What happens on the other side of the Gulf affects us here,” Davis, a University of Florida history professor, told me.

Thanks to the Gulf’s loop currents, he said, pollution that goes into the water in, say, Texas, eventually winds up affecting other parts as well.

“We can’t see those derricks,” Davis said, “but we in Florida can feel them.”

Out of sight

The notion that rigs off Texas won’t affect us here is so silly it made me grab for something to steady myself. I went spinning back in time, back to the olden days of April 2009 — the last time Florida politicians were silly enough to make a serious push for more drilling.

Excuse me while I cue up the silly 2009 hit song “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas to set the mood as I reminisce.

Back in those days, kids, there was a Democrat in the White House but Republicans controlled both houses of the Florida Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion. In other words, it was a time a lot like our own.

And, just like today, our legislators were not above pulling a fast one to help out a big corporation.

“Reversing a 19-year-old ban on drilling in state waters, the Republican-controlled House voted largely along party lines today to open Florida’s coastline to oil and natural gas exploration,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

The bill, pushed by what the paper called “a secretive alliance of oil interests,” would allow drilling in state waters between three and 10 miles off the coast.

Dean Cannon. Credit: Florida House

The bill’s sponsor was once-and-future lobbyist and incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Too Slick For His Own Good. In the closing weeks of the session, Cannon had produced the bill like a rabbit from a magician’s hat, then rushed it through the House.

Talk about boom boom pow!

I don’t recall the name of the bill, but let’s call it “The Out of Sight, Out of Mind Oil Drilling Act of 2009.” That was the main argument for it: Nobody will see the rigs, so we can pretend they don’t exist.

“That’s the goal, is to get beyond the sightline. With the technology, we believe we can do it,” promised one of the oil execs, who also called the risk of an oil spill “extremely, extremely low.” (This is what we in the writing trade call “foreshadowing.”)

The state’s business lobby, Associated Industries, was on-board in a big way. The organization, run by such big spenders as Big Sugar and Florida Power & Light, even bought television ads.

However, the last-minute nature of the bill turned out to be its weakness. The Senate president and the then-governor — a fellow by the name of Crist, maybe you’ve heard of him — said it was too late in the session to take up something so divisive yet so important.

That only bought them a year. Cannon, who represented a district about as far from the beach as you could get, seemed likely to slam the oil-drilling bill through in 2010. It would be “Boom Boom Pow II: Cannon’s New Boogaloo.”

But two letters changed the game: BP.

Chocolate pudding and a dead jellyfish

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded, killing 11 crew members. It sank 5,000 feet to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Two days later — on Earth Day, because God has sense of irony — the sunken rig began spewing oil. An underwater camera showed spellbinding footage of the ongoing leakage. Despite BP’s desperate effort to cap the well, it didn’t stop vomiting pollutants for nearly 90 days.

North Florida beaches including this one at Grayton Beach State Park were among those threatened by the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill that polluted the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Credit: Florida State Parks

The rig was more than 100 miles away from Pensacola. You definitely couldn’t see it from there. Not even standing on the top of the dunes.

Yet, by June, BP’s oil had coated the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and then began washing ashore in Florida.

The first day it hit, tourists who arrived at Pensacola Beach ready to splash in the surf found “thousands of shiny, reddish-brown globs, glistening in the sun,” a reporter with my initials wrote in the Tampa Bay Times then. The stuff “looked like a cross between chocolate pudding and a dead jellyfish.”

If you’re eating right now, my apologies for planting that image in your brain.

That icky stuff didn’t just paint blindingly white Pensacola Beach a thick, sickening brown. On just that first day, tar balls washed ashore along 40 miles of the Panhandle.

Before long the weathered oil had left its indelible mark on eight counties and rocked the tourism industry statewide as the cancellations began pouring in. That one spill damaged businesses all over the state.

It was proof that in Florida the environment and the economy are as intertwined the snakes on a doctor’s caduceus. You harm one, you’ll harm the other.

No sarcastic question marks

Just last month, the New York Post carried a column from a Louisiana loudmouth named Humberto Fontova raving about how great offshore oil rigs are for attracting fish. He asserted they’re better than all-natural coral reefs, no matter what the “greenie-weenies” say.

Fontova’s extravagant claims landed him an interview spot on Fox & Friends Weekend. When the anchor asked him about Deepwater Horizon, he claimed that a year after the disaster, everything was back to normal.

The anchor did not challenge that ridiculous assertion, just thanked him for his “facts.”

Here’s a real fact, no sarcastic quotation marks needed: We are still living with the consequences of that spill. Right off the bat, it killed dolphins, whales, sharks on down the food chain to shrimp, crabs, and even hundreds of millions of microscopic creatures called foraminifera. The harm to human health have turned out to be pretty bad too.

At the 10 year anniversary, scientific reports spelled out that the damage is continuing. Yellowfin tuna, golden tilefish, red drum — they all carried signs of exposure to toxic oil.

So did yellow edge grouper. Their liver tissue and bile had a concentration of Deepwater Horizon chemicals that increased 800 percent over the decade, scientists found. (I think I’ll stick to eating mullet, thank you.)

The research continues. About the time Florida politicians were gazing wistfully at the campaign cash they could collect from the oil industry, a new scientific study came out. Led by Louisiana State University professor emeritus Edward Overton, this study found that 10 percent of the Deepwater Horizon oil persists in the places where it landed in 12 years ago.

It shows up as tar mats in coastal marshes and as thick liquid filling fiddler crab burrows, Overton told me this week. A Florida scientist, Steve Murawski of the University of South Florida, told me tar mats still rest just offshore and are stirred up whenever a storm hits.

You won’t read that in the New York Post.

Fighting oily-onset amnesia

One good thing came out of the BP spill. Florida voters made sure no future Dean Cannons can slip a pro-drilling bill past the Legislature. In 2018, 69 percent of them passed a constitutional amendment that bans oil drilling in state waters, meaning 3 miles off the Atlantic coast and 10 miles into the Gulf.

Aliki Moncrief finds that encouraging. The executive director of Florida Conservation Voters told me she is sure the voters won’t be fooled by the twisted arguments of this year’s pro-drilling candidates. Now if only the politicians realized that and rejected the rhetoric too.

“What we actually need is a policy to transition Florida away from dirty fuels to clean, renewable, affordable energy,” she told me.

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel.

Clean energy bills have been filed in the Legislature every year that Gov. Ron DeSantis has been in office, she said, but they have gone nowhere. He and his legislative leaders have been more concerned about fighting the phony culture wars, she said. (DeSantis has even bragged about doing no “left-wing stuff” to supplant the dirty oil industry.)

Davis is less optimistic about the voters rejecting the junk these politicians are peddling. I confess that I see the author’s point. The further away we get from when Deepwater Horizon happened, the worse the collective amnesia about what happened.

Hundreds of new folks move here every day, and they don’t know what it was like to live through the disaster. If they only read the fatuous commentary in publications like the New York Post or watch nothing but fact-free Fox & Friends, they’re never going to know.

The oil industry keeps actively encouraging that oily-onset amnesia, even trying to rewrite history. Not long ago, their paid lobbyists claimed the publicity about the disaster was worse than the disaster itself — a claim so blatantly false that I was surprised no lightning bolts zapped them on the spot.

Now the industry is muscling Florida GOP candidates into taking these silly pro-drilling-but-protect-the-beach positions. The reason oil execs are so insistent on their support is because the Biden administration may do something unprecedented.

Last month, for the first time ever, the Department of the Interior proposed a new long-term plan for offering oil drilling leases on public land that includes an option for NOT offering any leases for sale in the Gulf of Mexico. I first heard about this from Hunter Miller of the environmental group Oceana, who said it’s part of Biden’s climate change effort.

That’s pretty good news for us here in Florida, and not just because it helps us avoid another Deepwater Horizon. We’re the state most vulnerable to the ongoing climate alterations: rising seas, higher temperatures, more algae blooms, etc.

Interior will hold a virtual public hearing on this on Sept. 12, and I would encourage you to sign up now to tell them your thoughts about offshore drilling and its effects.

And if any of these Sultans of Silliness show up to argue in favor of opening the gulf to more drilling, you should shout “Boom boom POW!” and, if possible, spray them with Silly String. A whole warehouse full.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.