The past year has seen an increasing push in congress and the white house to open up areas of the gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration, which has historically been opposed by the people of Florida and practically all of the states elected officials. But the pressure has been increasing, and the department of Interior scheduled several public hearings about the possibility of opening up what’s called area 181 for leases to drill for oil and natural gas. However, none of the meetings were scheduled for Florida. At the request of Senators Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson, the interior department agreed to have one hearing in Florida on April 6th, but it will be in Tallahassee, not even near the gulf coast. To let Tampa bay area residents get their say, Representative Jim Davis held his own public hearing at the Port of Tampa this morning. WMNFs Andrew Stelzer was there and filed this report.

ACT-Sharpe “I have a question for everyone, if we believe there were significant reserves under the Grand Canyon would we drill? NO it's precious.

Shelly Sharpe was one of about 30 people who spoke in opposition to drilling for oil and gas tin the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off Florida gulf coast.

ACTY-Sharpe “If we believed there were gas underneath Wall Street, would we drill, well I think not because it is the epicenter of economic livelihood and word why would we drill in eth eastern portion of gulf of Mexico, its precious natural resource..�

Roughly 75 people came to the public hearing, which was being videotaped, Representatives Davis said he intended to enter the tape into the congressional record, where he said the peoples voices are not always heard.

ACT-Davis “I'm on the energy committee and id like to tell you there will be a debate..Don’t assume, this may be a 15 or 30-minute debate. We deserve better but this is what we have to deal with..�

Dr Robert Wiesberg, a USF professor on oceanography, played a video that showed how area 181 is in the path of a current that comes north from the Yucatan, loops around the gulf coast, then continues under south Florida and up the east coast to cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

ACT-Weisberg “You can see that anything that gets into the loop current will rapidly get into the keys and up the cast, so the immediate potential impact is really her and here..�

Davis said the area being debated, called area 181, contains only a year of oil and a year of natural gas, and noted that raising fuel efficiency standards would do a lot more to make America energy independent. And many of the citizens, including Ed Ross, spoke about the need for alternate sources of energy as a necessary step to be taken so that Florida is not fighting drilling proposals every few years.

ACT-Ross “What were looking at here is to seal off the state of Florida for a few big business to get a little bit of money, its unethical look at other states when you go into key west they have packets to remove tar from your feet..’

Hillsborough county commissioner Kathy castor came to express the commissions vote against drilling for oil in the gulf, as did St Pete city councilman Bill foster, who voted along with the St Pete city council to oppose drilling. Foster is also on the Pinellas county Tourist Development council, and he focused on the economic damage even one oil spill could do to Florida’s, and the Tampa bay areas economy.

ACT-Foster “Tourism in Pinellas County is our number one industry. Lee Daniel will tell you of the billions in economic impact, tens of thousands of jobs. In Pinellas county, we have adopted Florida’s beach, and we did that based upon data we’ve received and as much as id like to say its arts and devil rays, its not on surveys the number one is our white sandy beaches…its so important the feds spend million in nourishment�

Tom Stork the President of the Florida aquarium said that 86 million tourists come to Florida every year, and they spend 57 million dollars, 34 billion of which ends up boosting the states economy. Lee Daniel deputy director with the St Pete Clearwater visitor’s bureau said 5.2 million overnight visitors spent at least one night in Pinellas County in 2005.

ACT-Daniel “1992 was a record year for us, for the first 7 months on, an oil spill happened in august it took us 6 months to recover but did generate problems, and we heard earlier 7 years later we still saw the effect with dredging..�

Susan Long spoke about her time living in other states where the protection of the shoreline was nor as through as it has been in Florida.

ACT-LONG “I grew up in southern California, wed come back from the beach and have tar on our feet..In Houston they say its unsafe contaminants, I live in Florida its beautiful here, I go to the beach, I don’t want them to become like Texas's beaches..�

Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez have introduced a bill, and Davis has a similar bill in the house, which Davis called a “compromise�—it would open up a section of area 181 to natural gas exploration, but its borders would be about 235 miles from Tampa bay, instead of 200 miles proposed by the department of Interior. That area is roughly directly east of Tampa bay and directly south of Mobile bay in Alabama.

Davis ended the meeting by saying he couldn’t promise anything. The Interior Departments public hearing in drilling off the gulf coast will be held at 1pm on Thursday April 6th, at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center, at 505 West Pensacola Street, in Tallahassee. The local sierra club is organizing rides to the meeting, for more information call 727-824-8813

For WMNF news I’m Andrew Stelzer

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