With a massive offshore oil spill threatening the ecosystems of Florida and other Gulf coast states, a liberal public interest group is attempting to use the environmental disaster in its fight against new drilling near Florida's shores.
Progress Florida, a group based in St. Petersburg, is asking leading Florida legislative Republicans to abandon all plans for drilling in state waters, which are 3 to 10 miles off the coast.
"Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos have said they plan to champion efforts next legislative session to allow oil rigs off Florida's coast," a news release said. The release included an open letter to Cannon and Haridopolos:
For the past year, you've relentlessly championed efforts to allow oil rigs as close as three miles from our coast. The human, environmental and economic catastrophe happening now in our Gulf shows the folly of that effort. Although you've expressed new concerns in light of this tragedy, neither of you have publicly abandoned your effort to pass legislation next year that would sell off Florida's coastal waters to British Petroleum, Exxon, Chevron and other oil companies.
It's been reported in the media that you want to further study what happened in the Deepwater Horizon accident, as if there is a possible cause that would make drilling in Florida's state waters still Okay? As many experts told you before this massive spill, it's not a matter of "if" there will be an oil spill catastrophe, but "when." As concerned Floridians, we demand to know, "YES" or "NO", do you still plan to allow oil drilling off Florida's coast?
For this item, we decided to check Progress Florida's claim that Cannon and Haridopolos have said they plan to push drilling legislation when they come to power in the 2011 legislative session.
So let's explore where the two incoming leaders stand on drilling.
Cannon, R-Winter Park
In 2009, Cannon filed a bill in the Florida House that would have permitted the state to lease drilling areas (at $1 million per application) that are 3 to 10 miles off Florida's coast. The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.
He brought the bill back in 2010 with provisions that would give the military veto power over drilling leases (it uses the Gulf of Mexico for training exercises) and would prevent, Cannon said, visual impact to Florida's beaches. But without support in the Senate, the bill again died.
Before the spill, Cannon said he intended to try a third time in 2011, when he is speaker.
On April 17, Cannon stopped the drilling discussion for the year, but said the bill would return. "What we will do today is leave this issue in the best posture it can be -- in a position that reflects our collective work and our collective concerns," Cannon said. "So when the time is right -- hopefully that is next year -- we take that issue up and deliberate further."
After the spill, however, Cannon called for a timeout.
"Until we have all of the facts and all the answers about what happened and why, we shouldn't move forward," Cannon said on April 27.
And on May 2: "'I think it definitely is a game changer."
Haridopolos, R-Merrit Island
Haridopolos, the incoming Senate president, also has been a proponent of oil drilling in state waters.
"We will enhance Florida’s economic sovereignty by considering legislation that would allow the state’s Cabinet officials to open the waters off of Florida’s west coast to oil and natural gas production," Haridopolos wrote in an editorial published Sept. 24, 2009. "Florida can no longer afford to sit idly by as competing Gulf Coast states, and even foreign nations, reap the Gulf’s economic benefits. We can’t count on Washington to understand our energy needs, and Floridians need to take steps to reclaim our economic independence."
Haridopolos published a pre-session constituent survey that he said found that 76.7 percent support legislation to allow offshore oil drilling on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The poll was unscientific.
Haridopolos also filed legislation in the Senate in 2010 that would have allowed drilling in state waters. The only reason it didn’t move, the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald reported, was because of opposition from President Jeff Atwater.
Like Cannon, Haridopolos has made offshore drilling a priority for Florida's 2011 session, hoping money from oil leases could bring new sources of revenue to Florida.
That may not change, even in the wake of the spill.
"Anytime you look at any exploration, whether it's energy or space, there are inherent risks," Haridopolos said in Florida Today on April 28. "We just saw 29 miners killed in West Virginia, getting coal.
"Next year, we want to know what happened in Louisiana -- was it sabotage, human error, how could it be prevented," Haridopolos said. "This is a big change in policy and something like this gives us pause."
On the same day in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune Haridopolos said: "One incident should not put the idea to death."
Florida Progress claims that both have said they plan to bring up oil drilling during the 2011 session, allowing drilling perhaps as close as 3 miles from Florida's shore. They have. We rate Progress Florida's claim True.
UPDATE: On May 4, after this item was published, Cannon told the Orlando Sentinel that opening Florida waters to offshore drilling has been "permanently tabled" due to concerns over the gulf oil spill. Cannon said he will not push drilling during his two years as Speaker. “An accident like this hasn’t happened in my adult lifetime,” he said. “I doubt we’re going to get adequate answers [as to the cause] in two years, and as a matter of term limits, I’m done in two years. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s off the table.”