The Risks, Benefits of Off-Shore Drilling for Florida

The yellow-shaded area would be opened for exploration, under Obama's plan.
ST. PETE BEACH (4-1-2010) -

In the wake of President Obama’s announcement to expand offshore oil and gas drilling, people in Florida are struggling to weigh its potential risks and benefits to the state.

The President has ended a drilling moratorium that stretched from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the Atlantic beaches of Delaware. He’s also proposing more drilling in the waters north of Alaska.

On St. Pete Beach, reaction was mixed to the announcement.

Kathy Douglas power-walked through the soft, white sand on Wednesday morning, past seagulls and rows of pale sunbathers soaking up the morning rays.

She loves this beach so much, she moved here, and now spends her free time trying to stop off-shore drilling.

She says the benefits are temporary, and the potential dangers are huge.

“Why jeopardize all this beauty, and a tourism industry. So why take the risk?” she said.

Under a compromise worked out by Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, drilling would be limited to 125 miles offshore.

Scientists believe a spill in waters that far offshore could travel hundreds of miles, and foul beaches from the Keys to the Carolinas.

But St. Pete Beach visitors Jane and Louis Pinto from Philadelphia don’t think it’s much of a danger. Spills are less common than they once were.

“I think it’s proven to be pretty safe. If it’s that far off, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the tourists and the beach, I think you have to do something to keep the economy growing,” Jane Pinto said.

“Basically, get off our dependency on foreign oil,” Louis Pinto added.

Environmental groups claim there’s just a 6-month supply of oil in these waters.

But University of South Florida geologist Al Hine says there may be more. The government’s data is old and incomplete.

And the industry is spending millions to explore deep waters far from shore.

“The oil industry is right now out there, shooting seismic, it’s all proprietary data, it’s extremely expensive. If they didn’t think there was anything there, they wouldn’t be spending the money,” Hine said.

The oil and gas industry has responded to the President’s move with muted praise and demands for much more.

"We in the industry are hopeful that as we move forward, consideration can be given to other resource-rich areas,” said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council. He’d like to see drilling closer to shore, especially off Florida’s panhandle.

Used to be, Democrats and Republicans in Florida and other east-coast states came together to oppose offshore oil and gas production.

But it’s the age of “Drill, Baby, Drill.” Polls now show a majority of Florida residents – and a majority of Americans -- supporting off-shore drilling.

President Obama says increased drilling is a bridge until alternative energy is developed.

Back on St. Pete Beach, Kathy Douglas has another word for it:

“I definitely think it’s a crutch. Because if we have fossil fuels that are so easily available, we cease to try to develop the technology that makes alternative energy affordable to the average person,” she said.

The battle is not over yet. Congress would have to agree to lift the Gulf drilling moratorium, although many Florida politicians seem eager to compromise on this.

Now comes years of study – and lawsuits – before drilling can begin off Alaska, and from the Florida Gulf to the coast of Delaware.

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