June 18, 2008

Florida Governor Now Backs Drilling in State’s Waters

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday abandoned his opposition to drilling off Florida's coast, signaling he's ready to bet that public support is eroding for a ban that has prevented oil and gas exploration off the state's beaches for two decades.

Crist, who has touted his opposition to oil drilling since he ran for the Senate in 1998, embraced GOP presidential nominee John McCain's call to lift the federal moratorium that protects the U.S. coastline. Crist said he supports exploring areas previously off-limits because "Floridians are suffering."

"When you're paying over $4 a gallon for gas, you have to wonder whether there might be additional resources to bring that price down," said Crist, who endorsed McCain for president and has been suggested as a potential vice-presidential pick.

Drilling off Florida's coast has been likened to the "third rail" of politics, but Crist suggested economic issues may trump environmental worries.


Still, his support -- and McCain's proposal -- drew immediate fire from environmental groups and Democrats who said further domestic drilling would not lower prices, which they said are being fueled by speculation.

"For a major candidate to say his answer is to drill off the coast of the United States shows a lack of vision," said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, speaking on a conference call arranged by Barack Obama's campaign. Nelson accused McCain of flip-flopping, noting he opposed lifting the ban when he ran for the White House in 2000.

But McCain's call comes as gas prices soar and Republicans and Democrats -- with an eye to the November election -- blame each other. A bipartisan front of Florida politicians that has long fought off efforts to drill showed increasing signs of fraying.

Hoping to add to that momentum, President Bush on Wednesday plans to push lawmakers to lift the ban.

Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, who had worked closely with Nelson on rebuffing drilling efforts, but who, like Crist, has endorsed McCain, suggested the tide may be turning as gas prices rise.

"The governor seems to have agreed with him and I kind of agree with him, so maybe things are changing in that regard," Martinez told reporters at the Capitol.

McCain, appearing in Houston -- in what he called the "oil capital of America" -- said the United States has "enormous energy reserves of our own. And we are gaining the means to use these resources in cleaner, more responsible ways. . . .

"Yet, for reasons that become less convincing with every rise in the price of foreign oil, the federal government discourages offshore production," he said. "As a matter of fairness to the American people, and a matter of duty for our government, we must deal with the here and now, and assure affordable fuel for America by increasing domestic production."


Martinez didn't fully embrace the measure but said if McCain's plan adopts a compromise that he and Nelson struck with pro-drilling advocates in 2006, "the rest of it is something I can probably live with."

That 2006 compromise opened up part of the eastern Gulf of Mexico but gave Florida a 125-mile buffer from any drilling rigs.

McCain's proposal would give states the power to decide whether to drill and would give them incentives to do so.

Even drilling advocates acknowledge that opening offshore waters to exploration is unlikely to provide more oil for seven to 10 years. Environmental groups think results are even more distant.

Others question whether the United States has enough refining capacity to handle significant amounts of new domestic oil.

The nation today has slightly fewer refineries than in the mid-1980s, when smaller operations closed after losing government subsidies.

The biggest prize in Florida is estimated to be the Destin Dome, where 39 exploratory wells drilled in the 1970s and '80s showed vast reserves of natural gas, some of it accompanied by a light, low-grade crude oil, from Pensacola to Tampa Bay.

Little is known about the extent of the oil and gas reserves off Florida's coast. The federal Minerals Management Service estimates that the reserves within the first 100 miles of Florida's coast would produce only natural gas and not oil, because the discoveries have been too deep for oil -- 20,000 feet or more -- and are under temperatures too high for oil to exist.

The National Petroleum Council estimates the eastern Gulf might hold 36.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 5.2 billion barrels of oil. Others doubt those numbers but say there is no way to know without further exploration.

Environmentalists warn, however, that Florida's multibillion-dollar tourism industry, its fisheries and its coastal real estate market are as much at risk as the environment if drilling anywhere in the Eastern Gulf is allowed.


Federal regulators acknowledge that drilling discharges harmful fluids and cuttings, disturbs delicate marine life and poses a threat to endangered sea turtles.

Despite the questions, Crist cited recent polls that he says show "people are much more favorably inclined to this idea so long as it's done safely, it protects our state and if that could help us lower the price of gas at the pump."

Allison DeFoor, a Republican environmentalist and advisor to Crist, said the governor is shrewdly reading the public's softening opinion of domestic drilling.


"Economics is driving us all off of our ideological positions and into the world of the practical," he said. "I have never seen a politician who is as good at discerning the mood of the people he serves and my sense is he has done that again."

The Florida Democratic Party, however, accused Crist of "turning his back on Florida" and accused him of opposing drilling as recently as last week, citing news reports.

"If John McCain jumps off a cliff, will Charlie Crist jump, too?" party spokesman Mark Bubriski said, noting that Crist in campaigning for governor and U.S. senator "actually was a bigger supporter of the moratorium than some other Republicans."

David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.