Oil Drilling opposed by environmentalists tourism official and business owners

09/14/09 Seán Kinane
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A gigantic oil spill that has been occurring for more than three weeks off the coast of Australia is being used as a warning to Floridians against opening up the state’s coastline to offshore drilling. About a dozen environmentalists, business owners, and a Pinellas tourism official made that case this morning amid sand dunes on Clearwater’s Sand Key Park beach.

DT Minich, the director of tourism for Pinellas County, says the Board of County Commissioners and the tourist development council have come out many times against drilling off of Florida’s coasts. Minich says the type of rig that is being touted by a group advocating drilling is the same one responsible for the leak in Australia.

“The jack-up rig is what they are proposing to use off our coasts. This is a temporary rig that they move from site to site to site. Earlier this summer, the group that is really pushing this was touting that folks in Australia had vision and were visionary in terms of allowing jack-up rigs off the coast of western Australia. Well, beginning August 21st, one of those jack-up rigs started spewing oil, and it is continuing to spew oil as we speak today.”

A much smaller spill in 1993 “devastated the tourism business” for years, Minich says.

In the Timor Sea off Australia As much as “500,000 litres of oil could still be spilling from the wellhead each day,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. NASA satellite images show that the oil slick has spread over an area of ocean at least “70 by 20 nautical miles.” Because of local circulation patterns, a spill that size from a jack-up rig even 80 miles off the coast of Florida, “would probably cover the entire coast of Florida within a week’s time,” according to the Sierra Club’s Phil Compton.

Federal legislation to lift Florida’s near-shore and off-shore drilling ban has also been proposed in Congress, Compton says.

A group called Florida Energy Associates is one of the leading advocates of allowing drilling off the state’s coast. WMNF requested an interview from former state Attorney General Jim Smith, a registered lobbyist for Florida Energy Associates, but he did not return our call by airtime.

Robin Grabowski is president of Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses from Sand Key south to Pass-a-Grille.

“It’s a beautiful stretch of beach anywhere you shop. … It’s vital that we protect our businesses and our beaches along the coastline.”

Lenne Nicklaus-Ball is with the Sirata Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach. "We've been fighting this for the last five years."

Kathleen McDole owns a restaurant in John’s Pass Village that has been in her family for over 30 years. She’s also the vice president of the Florida Restaurant Association’s Pinellas Chapter and made two stark predictions.

“[Local sustainable food] will become a thing of the past. … You will not be able to eat the seafood that’s in our Gulf and in our Bays if these oil rigs are put out there. … You will be paying [more] state sales tax. Our tourism industry offsets the state sales tax.”

But what do beachgoers think? At midday the wide, white sandy beach was sparsely populated, with a few dozen sunbathers on towels and a handful of young men waiting to catch the next wave on their skimboards. The response was mixed about whether Florida should allow drilling.

Jutta is a tourist from Munich, Germany. “No, that’s not good.”

Visiting from Croydon, Surrey in greater London, Seon Waterman is also opposed to allowing drilling.

But Nardo, from Dunedin, says that drilling would not affect his skimboarding.

Cindy Valade, who is visiting with her family from Pacos, New Mexico, doesn’t mind limited drilling.

There had been talk of a special session of the Florida Legislature next month. But last week, Senate President Jeff Atwater indicated that it is now unlikely, and that lifting the state’s offshore drilling ban would not be an appropriate topic for such a rushed discussion.

info about the Timor Sea Drilling Spill off the coast of Australia

St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce

Sydney Morning Herald article on oil spill, from Sat. 12 Sept.

Sydney Morning Herald article on oil spill, from Fri. 4 Sept.

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