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Off-shore oil and gas drilling threatens Florida’s beaches and coastal economy

By Staff | Oct 7, 2009

Members of Captiva Erosion Prevention District were among those up in arms over the possibility of oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coastline at the September 16-18 Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association’s Annual Beach Conference.

Coastal management experts in attendance are trying to raise public awareness and counter false claims from the oil and gas industry about the benefits of drilling along Florida’s coastlines. Lobbyists representing the oil and gas industry hope to sway Florida legislators and their constituents into supporting legislation that will allow drilling to take place. The opposition argues that this lobbying effort has been timed to exploit Florida’s economic downturn with empty promises of revenue and job creation from near- and off-shore drilling.

The lobbyists claim that off-shore oil and gas drilling will create 40,000 jobs in Florida. Representatives at the FSBPA conference, however argue that these jobs will not be for Floridians: it is more likely that the oil companies will hire skilled workers from Louisiana and Texas rather than Florida residents who are not qualified for those positions. Even if drilling did create the 40,000 jobs for Florida residents as claimed by the lobbyists, this figure may not even come close to offsetting the potential loss of tourism related jobs.

To put this into perspective, Pinellas County estimates that their $6.5 billion tourist industry employs 85,000 people – jobs that would be lost if tourists stop coming to Florida beaches.

How exactly can coastal oil and gas drilling affect area tourism, a driving force of the Florida economy?

Conference participants pointed out that hotels along Gulf coast beaches in Texas and Louisiana, states that permit offshore drilling, do not only offer guests free soap and shampoo, beachgoers also receive chemical wipes to remove tar and oil from their feet after a day of soaking up more than just the sun. They questioned whether Floridians really support such a plan for the future of Florida’s treasured beaches.

Panelists at the conference warned that the worst-case scenario for oil spills is damage to rigs during a hurricane: 140 rigs collapsed during Hurricane Katrina. It was noted that the fallout from a St. Petersburg oil spill in 1993 still causes tar balls to wash up on the beach after storm activity in the Gulf. That spill caused devastating declines in business revenue in the county.

Panelists emphasized that spills in the Gulf would be a concern for Florida’s east coast, as well. The Loop Current, which starts in the panhandle, moves down the west coast and picks up the Gulf Stream in Miami, meaning that an oil spill on the west coast of Florida would be felt on the east coast. Such an event would have dire effects on Florida’s trademark beaches: a single publicized oil spill in one area of Florida could deter tourists from the state altogether.

Countering these concerns, the lobbyists claim that the latest drilling rigs, called jack-up rigs, would be used to drill off-shore in Florida. Despite having 22 separate failsafe mechanisms that would prevent oil spills, a jack-up rig is the cause of the current West Atlas oil spill off the Western Coast of Australia. This toxic event started in August 2009 and is still on-going because no-one can figure out how to stop it.

Lobbyists contend that oil and gas drilling along the Florida coast will raise state revenue and force gas prices down, although the U.S. Energy Department has stated that there would be no impact on oil prices until 2030. The lobbyists are also staking out a position that off-shore Florida drilling will promote energy independence for the US, even though the oil and gas industry itself estimates that only three percent of the world’s oil reserves are to be found in the entire Gulf of Mexico.

However, there’s no question about the value of off-shore drilling leases to the oil companies; owning off-shore drilling leases adds asset value to an oil company’s balance sheet and raises its stock price.

Conference speakers stated facts cast serious doubts on the value of drilling near Florida’s coasts. All of the coastal management experts at the conference agreed that the risk of oil spills from near- and off-shore drilling is extremely high.

Their position is that the damage that those oil spills would cause to Florida’s beaches, off-shore sand borrow areas and tourist economy would far outweigh any economic benefits of Florida’s granting of off-shore drilling leases. Opponents believe the oil and gas lobby hopes to obtain these leases at the expense of Florida’s priceless environment and already ailing economy.

The CEPD, which participated in the FSBPA Annual Conference, has been placed on the Lee County Legislative Delegation agenda for Dec. 15. At that time, CEPD intends to defend the coastal community’s best interests and raise the delegation’s awareness of the oil drilling threat to Florida’s beaches.

On the FSBPA Conference, CEPD senior administrative consultant Kathleen Rooker stated, “If there is one thing I took away from that meeting, it’s that oil rigs and hurricanes do not mix. The results of an oil spill in this area would be catastrophic.”

The CEPD is encouraging Captivans, Lee County residents, and all those concerned about the fate of Florida’s coastlines to raise public awareness and make their voices heard on this issue.