Two years after the BP spill, how does oil drilling sit with Florida voters on eve of GOP primary?

01/30/12 Kelly Benjamin
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It's been less than two years since the BP oil spill gushed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in One of the worst environmental disasters in US history. As Republican voters in Florida decide tomorrow which of the GOP candidates they prefer as their presidential nominee, we look at the candidates’ stances on gulf oil drilling and whether the BP oil spill still weighs heavily in the minds of voters in the sunshine state.

Last week, The U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it will begin selling leases for offshore oil drilling in 38 million acres in the central Gulf of Mexico. Also, last week a Florida bill that would allow oil drilling in state parks and forests was approved by the Florida House Energy and Utilities Committee. All of this comes as studies continue to highlight the environmental damage caused by recent oil disasters in the Gulf of Mexico, Michigan, and Montana. But nearly two years after the images of oil soaked birds have faded from newspapers and tv screens, how does oil and gas offshore drilling fit into the platforms of the Republican Presidential candidates that Floridians will be voting for tomorrow?

That's Rick Santorum speaking at the Republican presidential debate in Tampa last week. He, along with Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, all have virtually identical stances supporting aggressive oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Florida Political commentator and blogger Peter Schorsh says that's because environmental concerns typically don't play well with the Republican base.

That may be an issue in a general election, but in Florida's GOP primary, candidates are largely competing for the conservative "drill baby drill" base. Schorsch says that groups like the Tea Party are less concerned with drilling per say than they are with taking a stance that is the opposite of what liberals want. Tampa Republican Micheal Fluno may be one of those conservatives who is an exception to the rule. The native Floridian is concerned about offshore drilling but recognizes the need for Americans to get off foreign oil.

For many, The concern about the environment extends to the economy. The tourism industry in Florida employs more than one million people. That includes Tony Satterfield, the general manager of the Alden Beach Resort and the past president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. Satterfield says that and even though the Tampa Bay area largely dodged the oil damage seen in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, the disaster caused a direct impact on tourism here.

Satterfield says the potential for another disaster is too great for him to support offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cathy Harrelson, a Florida organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network, says that's impossible to guarantee something like the BP spill won't happen again and that politicians seem to have a narrow understanding of what it will take to get the US off of foreign oil.

It may take a while for that change to come. In his State of the Union Address last week, President Obama promised to open 75% of available land in the US to offshore drilling. The Florida primary election takes place Tuesday. The next caucuses will be in Nevada on February 4.

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