I still remember the first time I saw oil and gas rigs from the beach. I’m a native and life-long Floridian, used to open vistas and sunsets not marred by industrial facilities offshore. I was on a road trip in college and visited Dauphin Island, Alabama and Grand Isle, Louisiana and was both amazed and disheartened to see rigs offshore. It’s a sobering experience, and one that I have never forgotten.
This year, in the “silly season” of elections, the issue of expanding offshore oil and gas drilling along the OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) has been given renewed life as the oil industry realizes the Bush Administration gravy train may be ending. A bad economy, high gas prices, and election year posturing have combined to create a political window for the oil industry to seek eliminations of the moratoriums and restrictions that protect most of the OCS around the United States. Candidates seem all too willing to sacrifice the public interest to keep big oil happy, and as you read this Congressional moratoriums that have been in place for years to protect the OCS from drilling have been allowed to expire.
Perhaps folks supportive of the oil industry in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas wonder why Florida seems so concerned about offshore drilling. And, in fairness it should be noted that even a slight majority of Floridians now seem to support some expansion of drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The multi-million dollar campaign of lies from Big Oil connecting drilling to lower gas prices has worked, and people who are scared as our economy worsens (understandably so) want some sort of solution now. The reality is, spin and falsehoods aside, there is almost no connection between expanding drilling in the OCS and gas prices going down.
The Presidential, Congressional, and other legislative moratoriums and restrictions on drilling in the OCS go back 20 years in some cases. For years, Democrats and Republicans came together to agree that protecting our oceans, our nation’s fisheries, critical state tourist economies, and military training areas was more important than drilling. Billions of dollars were spent to buy back oil drilling leases in environmentally sensitive areas. The common ground found was underscored by the idea that we need to protect our coastal ecosystems, communities, and economies.
Now, with a race for the White House and the fear of high energy prices being used to scare Congress into some action (Drill Baby, Drill anyone?), decades of good policy is being thrown out the window. What is best for America is secondary to what is best for Big Oil. If we can’t get it right on an issue like this, how will we ever confront and address climate change?
Despite the lapsing moratoriums, Big Oil won’t be drilling off the Gulf Coast of Florida anytime soon. Legislation passed in 2006 (a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, and between coastal communities and the oil industry) both opened more of Lease Area 181 to drilling and created a 125 to 230 mile buffer zone off the Gulf Coast of Florida. Lease Area 181 is a large lease area on the border between the MMS eastern planning area and central planning area. In this compromise protections were put in place for Florida’s coastal ecosystems and economies, as well as protections for military training areas in the eastern Gulf. In exchange for that Big Oil got access to large areas of Lease Area 181 previously off limits to them. Whether or not that legislation will hold remains to be seen.
Perhaps after the November elections some common sense will return to Congress (if only fleetingly) and we’ll see energy legislation that solves the real problems and promotes a sustainable energy future for America. I drove out to Cedar Key, Florida the other day (I like to consider it the unofficial capitol of the Nature Coast) to ponder the future of the Gulf Coast of Florida.
At sunset I gazed out across the intact and healthy open coastal marsh and the Gulf of Mexico and rejoiced that the only lights I saw were stars as day faded to night. Gulf Restoration Network is committed to the idea, and the reality, that Florida’s Gulf Coast should stay rig free. The risk to our economy and environment is too great. Shifts in the political winds aside, the right thing remains the right thing and that is the standard by which future generations will judge us as we chart the energy future they will inherit.
Joe Murphy is GRN's Florida Programs Director