Southwest Florida closely watching offshore drilling discussion

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Offshore oil drilling platform. (Credit: David Wilson / CC BY 2.0)

A marine and eco-tourism company is not where you’d expect to get a lot of support for the idea of expanding offshore-drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

But Harry Julian, who runs Pure Florida, isn’t your average charter boat company owner. He spent time driving boats for oil rigs in Louisiana and said he realized how safe drilling can be if done properly.

“I think for us to say not in my backyard is a little hypocritical,” said Julian, pointing out that everything from the boat itself to the fishing line was made of petroleum products.
Not to mention the obvious: the fuel it takes to run his boats.

A federal law bans any oil or gas exploration in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico that surrounds Florida’s Gulf coast. The moratorium expires in 2022.

A January draft proposal by the Department of Interior considers reopening leasing in that area as well as regions bordering Florida’s Atlantic coast.

After strong opposition from Florida Governor Rick Scott, and legislatures on both sides of the aisle, Secretary Ryan Zinke said he would not recommend Florida as part of his final proposal.

However, that final proposal will not be released until sometime in 2019 and legislation proposed by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise would limit the President’s ability to withdrawal certain areas from leasing.

Meantime, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management welcomed public comment on the issue at an open house in Tallahassee Thursday.

A series of meetings are being held across the country through March, where people can speak to subject matter experts before providing their own opinions for BOEM to consider.
The same information and opportunity to comment is also available virtually.

Opponents of expanding offshore drilling point to Florida’s tourist-based economy as their number one concern. Tourist spending in Florida topped $100 billion and supported 1.4 million jobs, according to the latest numbers released by the Governor’s office.

The American Petroleum Institute estimates that an expansion of offshore drilling would add 3.2 billion to Florida’s economy and create 85,000 jobs by 2035.

Proponents for drilling point to the quality of jobs that the oil industry would bring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage for an unskilled driller is $20 an hour compared to the mean wage for a hospitality-related job like a bartender with a mean wage of $12 an hour.

“I think if it’s done properly, it could be a win-win for everyone,” said Julian, who lost business in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

He said he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the sluggish tourist economy following the disaster even though no oil actually came close to Lee or Collier counties.

He wasn’t alone. The Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau reported a loss of $84 million drop in tourist spending in the spring season of 2010 compared to 2009.

“We didn’t see a drop of oil on our beaches but our economy suffered tremendously. We had people cancelling hotel reservations. Our restaurants and local businesses suffered,” said James Evans, the director of natural resources for the City of Sanibel.

Sanibel has passed a resolution in opposition to the Secure America Energy Act, which would require Congressional approval for the President to block or ban areas for future drilling.

Evans said the resolution is a way for the city to have Florida’s elected leaders in Washington know that offshore drilling expansion brings economic and environmental costs.

Representative Francis Rooney is also opposed to the idea of expanding offshore drilling, and has filed his own legislation seeking a permanent moratorium on areas surrounding Florida.

Energy policy experts said they did not see how Florida could be ‘off the table’ for leasing without allowing other states the same exemption.

Rooney alongside Florida Governor Rick Scott, and Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio have all argued that Florida is uniquely different than other states where leases could come into play.

“My experience in Washington has been trying to make a point to people up here who can’t totally comprehend that a state like Florida with a tourist economy and residential development is unalterably opposed to offshore drilling in the Eastern Gulf,” said Rooney, who is in the process of getting co-sponsors for his bill.

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