Drilling forum in Gulfport draws large crowd listen11/06/09 Matthew Cimitile & SeÃ¡n Kinane
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In Gulfport last night, the public piled into a town hall meeting on drilling for fossil fuels off the coast of Florida. It was billed as a meeting about one of the most important decisions impacting Floridaâ€™s future. Scientists, politicians and advocates gave arguments for and against a controversial proposal that would open up Floridaâ€™s Gulf coastline to gas and oil exploration as close as three to five miles from shore. Florida House Representative Rick Kriseman, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, said the stakes are high.
Kriseman: â€œThis amendment to drill off our coast involves a topic St. Pete Times columnist Howard Troxler called â€˜only the biggest decision in our statesâ€™ historyâ€™ and I agree with that. â€¦ And itâ€™s my goal to keep this water clean and keep our shoreline clean.â€
Some of the questions discussed were: How much oil can be found off Floridaâ€™s shores, what kind of economic impact drilling could have on the state, and what the risks would be to ecosystems and tourism from drilling and associated oil spills. Eugene Shinn, a professor in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, said most oil that ends up in the ocean does not come from drilling, but from natural seepage and from oil transportation.
Shinn: â€œHere is your real problem: 99 percent of the oil in the ocean does not come from drilling. This has been shown over and over again. Most of the oil comes from all these other sources and the tankers are the things you really want to avoid. â€¦ 1,000 to 2,000 barrels of oil seeps into the gulf every day, there is nothing you can do about it.â€
Amy Maguire of Southern Strategy Group, an organization lobbying for offshore drilling, said six billion barrels of oil go in and out of the Port of Tampa each year, mostly by tankers. Maguire added that in the Florida House proposal to lift the offshore drilling ban, oil would go through pipelines instead of tankers.
Maguire: â€œPipelines are the way all of this is going to be used thus reducing the usage of tankers and any other apparatus that moves. According to the Mineral Management Service most accidents do occur in tankers and in transport.â€
Momentum to overturn Floridaâ€™s 20-year offshore drilling ban began as gas prices soared past $4 per gallon last year. According to a recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll, a majority of Floridians now favor drilling off Floridaâ€™s coasts. In April, the Florida House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow Governor Crist and the Cabinet to consider lease proposals for drilling in state waters, but the measure died in the senate. The issue is expected to be a serious debate before the end of the 2010 Legislative session. Representative Kriseman said he will oppose any offshore drilling measure because of the uncertainties about benefits it will bring to Florida, and his belief that with oil drilling, one thing is certain.
Kriseman: â€œOil spills happen all the time, the most recent one of course happened off the coast of Australia at a rate of 400 barrels of oil per day since August 21. â€¦ Some 58,000 gallons or 1,400 barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico just this summer 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The Coast Guard reported a 16 mile by 3 mile rainbow-like oil sheet on the water.â€
The question remains about whether offshore drilling would bring much-needed revenue and jobs to Florida. Oil lobbyist Amy Maguire cited an economic analysis by Fishkind and Associates that said if drilling produces 3 billion barrels of oil it will generate $2.3 billion and 43,000 jobs. But Shahra Anderson, regional director for Senator Bill Nelson, argued that even if this amount of oil is found, it wouldnâ€™t necessarily provide jobs to a state that is hovering near 11 percent unemployment.
Anderson: â€œThey have referenced how many jobs will come to Florida, but with Florida not being in the oil industry we do not have certified, qualified Floridians who would be able to claim these jobs. Initially they would have to be resourced from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, not Florida.â€
Many elected officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties have opposed the measure. They fear opening up Florida state waters in the Gulf would adversely affect the environment and beaches, a primary engine for tourism dollars. These sentiments have been echoed by Senator Bill Nelson and former Florida Governors. Anderson quoted one of these Governors, Reuben Askew.
Anderson: â€œWe must build a peace in Florida, a peace between the people and their place, between the natural environment and man-made settlement, between the works of man and the life of mankind itself.â€
The discussion of whether to open up Floridaâ€™s coasts to nearshore drilling will continue throughout the state and at least until the end of the Legislative session.