Two state legislators urge special session on drilling ban

05/06/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today, two state lawmakers urged the governor to hold a special session to get a constitutional amendment on November’s ballot banning offshore drilling in state waters. But despite the timing of the proposal, the pro-drilling camp might still flex its muscle.

They couldn’t have picked a better time and place for such an announcement. The late morning sun and breeze were gentle on the grounds of the Trade Winds Resort in St. Pete Beach. The Gulf waves audibly brushed ashore nearby. Against a backdrop of expansive white sand and turquoise sea, Democratic state Reps. Keith Fitzgerald and Rick Kriseman talked about the ills of offshore drilling. Fitzgerald, who's from Sarasota, said there may be a way to keep oil rigs out of Florida’s waters.

We are calling on Governor Crist and the leaders of the House and the Senate to call for a special session. And in this special session we would like to consider placing on the ballot a proposal to make drilling off the coast of Florida unconstitutional.

Kriseman, who represents St. Petersburg, said the issue can’t wait until next year’s legislative session.

Today is akin to taking the keys away from a drunk driver. In this case, it’s not alcohol, but power and money. My friends, we can no longer trust the Republican leadership to drive our energy agenda.

State Sen. Dan Gelber, a Democrat from Miami Beach who is running for attorney general, made a similar plea in his home district. State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat running for governor, also announced she was joining in the call. But Fitzgerald said to paint elected officials’ responses to the spill as election-year tactics would be overly cynical.

In the case of Rick and I, we’ve been on this thing from the beginning. We’re not lately to this issue. We didn't just sit around and say, “Oh, yippee; here's a big opportunity.” We've been on the same page from the very beginning. This is a fundamental issue. So, you know, you cannot defeat the level of cynicism.

Fitzgerald, a political science professor at Sarasota's New College, said the real issue here is timing. While Florida’s shores won’t see oil exploration at least for the next year, the idea could get resurrected down the road.

Now, Governor Crist, Representatives (Dean) Cannon and (Mike) Haridopolos , have said this idea is dead for now. But as members of the Legislature, we know that bad ideas, when they’re attached to special interests, often become vampires. They rise from the dead. We’re proposing to drive a stake through the heart of this particular bad idea; end it once and for all.

Anyhow, said Kriseman, someone whose aspirations were solely political would probably go where the money is.

Let’s be honest. If it was really all about campaigns, where are we going to be able to most raise campaign dollars? You know, it’s not from the environmental groups. It's from the oil industry, who has already pumped millions of dollars into their campaign to try and get near-shore drilling. So if this was all about, you know, trying to make sure we get re-elected, we would be saying, “Oh, no; this is just a blip; it's, you know, an isolated incident; let's move forward,” and then pocket the checks.

Kriseman added that a diverse array of interested parties oppose drilling for oil in Florida’s waters.

It wasn’t just the environmentalists that were joining hands to fight near-shore drilling. You had chambers of commerces, all up and down the coasts, that were saying, “No — we don't want this off our coasts.” You had convention and visitor bureaus. You had the local governments. I mean, it wasn't just the environmentalists, the Realtors.

Supporters of the ban believe that voters would pass an amendment banning drilling with an overwhelming majority. But once it made it onto the books, it’s hard to tell whether it would stay intact. Fitzgerald said he thinks the amendment would have staying power, because it gets to the core of what it means to be a Floridian.

If you think about what belongs in a basic document about who we are and how we're governed, taking care of our natural resources and making that a top priority should be in that constitution.

Kriseman added that there’s really no telling what future leaders will do, but that changing the law wouldn’t exactly be easy.

The Legislature just can’t show up at session and pass a bill and repeal it. It would have to go back to the voters to be repealed.

Fitzgerald said there’s a bigger-picture aspect at play here, in terms of both politics and natural resources.

There's a political issue. I care — one of the main reasons I got into this stuff, is I'm worried about the health of our political system. I think our political system is broken. You look around the world at any area — rich country, poor country — that is highly dependent on resource extraction, and you see corrupt politics.

Officials from throughout Pinellas sat in the audience, including council members from Gulfport and Madeira Beach. Michele King, vice mayor of Gulfport, said she believes local governments can have a strong influence on what happens at the state and national levels.

I can have my city promote a resolution that says we're in favor of a special session and we are in favor of banning drilling in our waters. The Suncoast League of Cities and the Florida League of Cities have been very active in this, and in fact my mayor, along with the league, are in Washington right now, talking to Senator Nelson and Congressman (U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill) Young, to see if they can tweak that energy bill that's there to have more protections in it for the state of Florida and the surrounding coast.

The governor and cabinet members, in addition to CFO Sink, are getting moving on the issue. Attorney General Bill McCollum and the AGs from four other Gulf states have sent a letter to President Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, asking for federal help in preparing damage assessments in the wake of the disaster at Deepwater Horizon. Meanwhile, Governor Crist has asked the federal government for 50 million dollars in emergency grant money. Crist has also said he’s considering holding a special session.

More WMNF coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

BP's track record on safety, and are chemical dispersants harmful to the environment?

Coast Guard holds secret meeting with environmental groups

Seabird sanctuary prepares for oil slick disaster in Tampa Bay

Castor says BP thinks oil leak could be up to 60 thousand barrels per day

Behind “Drill, Baby, Drill”

Officials give rosy view on oil spill recovery efforts

Sen Bill Nelson wants pause in exploration until cause of oil spill determined

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