Gulf Coast residents greet drilling vote with worry and shrugs

Published June 30, 2006

For some residents of Florida's west coast, the thought of oil drilling within 50 miles is a terrifying prospect.

"If there's a spill, oh my, would there be hell to pay," said William Ward, owner of Captain's Finest Seafood in Tampa.

Others are not concerned about the possibility of oil spills

"I don't think the risk is that great," said Dutch Woods, ships store manager at the Cedar Bay Marina on Marco Island. Government regulations will prevent any disaster, he said.

No matter what their position, residents from the Panhandle to the Keys, many of them with a stake in the gulf's sparkling beaches, have been closely following the congressional debate over allowing oil companies to drill off the state's shoreline.

The House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill called the Deep Ocean Energy Resource Act that would allow oil and gas drilling 50 miles off Florida and other coastal states. State legislators could block drilling within 100 miles or allow it as close as three miles. Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson have vowed to filibuster against it in the Senate.

Florida's $50-billion tourist industry depends heavily on its beaches. The slightest taint in the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico can be enough to send tourists packing. For instance, when red tide plagued southwest Florida last year, out-of-state visitors who got one whiff of all the dead fish quickly canceled their reservations.

"We need this beautiful white beach because it's our livelihood," said Sandy Johnson, executive director of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, explaining why she and her 180 members oppose drilling in the eastern gulf. "Anything that would mar it, we don't need that."

For many businesses along the Gulf Coast, the environment is the economy. For instance, Capt. Adam Brynes' Siren Dive Shop in Summerland Key offers tours of the most extensive living coral reef in North America. If pollution from offshore rigs or, worse, a spill should kill the reef, then that's the end of his business.

Tourism is really the only industry in the Keys, Brynes pointed out. If there's nothing to attract tourists, "then these Keys are worthless," he said. "Everyone's life would be destroyed, including mine."

Other industries depend on the gulf being relatively free of pollution - for instance, the clam-farming industry in Cedar Key. To Cedar Key Commissioner Sue Colson, who serves on the board of the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association, Congress is risking ecological disaster in exchange for something that will be quickly used up.

"This is dumb to ruin valuable resources for what you're going to get," Colson said. "If you want to totally toast this state and make it nothing but Disney World, then go ahead and drill."

But Ken Daniels Jr., owner of Little Manatee Seafood in Ruskin, said Florida's $1.2-billion seafood industry has nothing to fear from offshore drilling because it's safer now.

"I think it would be good for the economy," he said.

Pressure to end the ban on drilling in the eastern gulf began when Hurricane Katrina smashed rigs and pipelines and refineries in Louisiana and Texas, driving up gas prices.

Although drilling proponents have repeatedly said Hurricane Katrina caused no significant oil spills, Coast Guard officials say Katrina caused unprecedented damage requiring the largest environmental response in the nation's history. The storm created an 8.1-million gallon oil spill from multiple facilities along the Mississippi River corridor.

Then, during Hurricane Rita, a barge struck a hurricane-damaged submerged platform off the coast of Port Arthur, Texas, spilling 3-million barrels into the gulf, the largest submerged oil spill in U.S. history.

To see the eastern gulf put at risk by Congress "is absolutely unthinkable," said St. Pete Beach Commissioner Nancy Markoe, who along with fellow Commissioner Michael Finnerty will speak Saturday at a Sierra Club-sponsored anti-drilling demonstration on Pass-A-Grille Beach

The Loop Current means residents and businesses along the state's Atlantic Coast ought to be paying attention to the congressional debate, too, said University of South Florida oceanographer Robert Weisberg.

The current circulates warm water from the Caribbean Sea up toward Louisiana, then sweeps it down through the Straits of Florida, around the Keys and up the Atlantic Coast to join the Gulf Stream. Pollution settling into the Loop Current from drilling in the eastern gulf would flow south to coat the Keys, Weisberg said, and then be pushed north to wreak further havoc on the state's ecology and the economy.

"It could affect the beaches and reefs all the way up the East Coast," Weisberg said last year.