Energy & Environment

Offshore drilling opponents gear up for Gulf fight

Offshore drilling opponents in Florida are bracing for a potential fight with the oil industry over the future of drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Oil groups this week said they are eyeing potential exploration in the eastern Gulf, a prospect buoyed by the Trump administration’s recent review of federal offshore drilling policies.
Federal law bars drilling within 125 miles of Florida’s Gulf Coast. But with that ban expiring in 2022 and President Trump pushing for expanded oil development offshore, both sides are preparing for a battle.
“Floridians understand that offshore drilling is a bad idea — it’s just not right for us,” said Holly Parker, the Florida regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental nonprofit.
{mosads}“What makes sense for Louisiana and Texas and other states just doesn’t really apply here. It’s not right for Florida.”
Trump’s April 27 order requires the Interior Department to reconsider the federal offshore drilling plan, which outlines oil lease sales for the next five years.
The current plan, instituted by former President Barack Obama in November, allows 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico. But the plan only covers a tiny sliver of the eastern Gulf, an area roughly defined by the the edge of the Florida panhandle that points southward.
In 2006, Congress formally banned drilling within 125 miles of the Florida coast, a restriction that chafes drillers who want to explore an oil-rich section of the sea that contains up to 2.35 billion barrels of oil, according to federal estimates.
With that moratorium due to sunset in 2022 — the same year the current five-year drilling plan ends — drillers hope Trump officials will consider opening up the area for oil development or exploration.
“The eastern Gulf of Mexico, as you look it from the energy and industry points of view, it’s one of the most logical next steps,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), which supports offshore drilling.
“You already have the industry in the Gulf: you have the companies, you have the infrastructure, you just take the logical step to look toward the eastern Gulf of Mexico.”
The sticking point for eastern Gulf drilling has always been Florida, for whom the specter of the 2010 BP oil spill disaster still looms large. Congressional opposition to drilling there is bipartisan.
In the House, Florida Reps. Vern Buchanan (R) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) introduced a bill on Monday to extend the drilling moratorium for five more years. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
Nelson, one of Congress’s most aggressive foes of eastern Gulf drilling, said he’s “of course” worried Trump’s executive order will increase the possibility for drilling there. But he said opponents will raise concerns about drilling’s threat to Florida’s tourism industry as a way to diffuse the push.
“It’s getting easier because our friends, bipartisan, in the Florida delegation are waking up to the fact of what happened by losing a whole tourist season when the BP spill was off of Louisiana and got as far east as northwestern Florida beaches,” he said.
“So in a way it’s easier because we’re now getting bipartisan support when in fact, back in 2006, it was just Sen. [Mel] Martínez [R-Fla.] and me — we were fighting this battle alone.”
Drillers and their supporters say they want to work with opponents on a plan to preserve something of a buffer zone near Florida while allowing for exploration in the eastern Gulf.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said a bill he introduced to expand drilling in the Gulf would prevent drilling within 50 miles of the coast.
“Bill Nelson always wanted to say we’re about drilling off of Florida, well you gotta be kidding around about drilling off of Florida, but that’s what he would say to kind of get people ginned up,” Cassidy said. “It’s not part of our plan.”
Oil groups say the eastern Gulf makes logistical sense for companies, given how much drilling infrastructure there is in other parts of the region.
“We think that it would be essential, from an energy security standpoint, both for national security reasons and for the continuing demand for oil and gas that we’re going to see for a long time, for Interior to take a serious look at the eastern Gulf of Mexico,” Erik Milito, the upstream and industry operations group director at the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters last week.
That argument doesn’t satisfy opponents in Florida, who pulled out all the stops to combat eastern Gulf drilling last week.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill that would extend the moratorium while also tweaking federal royalty policies as a way to send more Gulf of Mexico drilling revenue to Florida. In an op-ed, he wrote that his state is “losing out” on federal payments that could fund conservation or environmental efforts.
After the House bill was unveiled on Monday, Nelson’s office also released a letter sent to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) from the Pentagon that said the Department wants to maintain the drilling ban there.
The military uses the eastern Gulf as a training ground, and Florida hosts many Navy and Air Force bases.
“The moratorium … ensures that these vital military readiness activities may be conducted without interference and is critical to their continuation,” A.M. Kurta, the acting under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, wrote in the letter.
Surfriders’ Parker said that activists have a well-worn game plan they plan to employ against offshore drilling, using a combination of arguments opposing the drilling from ecological, economic and military standpoints.
“We’re very disappointed in the executive order, but we fought it before and we’re ready and willing to fight it again,” she said.
“We have been fighting against offshore drilling forever. It’s not new to us, and it’s something that Floridians are really committed to.”
—Updated at 10:46 a.m.
Tags Barack Obama Bill Nelson BP Drilling Florida Gulf Coast Marco Rubio Offshore drilling
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