It’s been a seesaw battle for decades; oil interests push for oil drilling in Florida’s nearshore state waters and coastal communities and environmentalists push back, asserting that drilling could threaten marine resources, the state’s way of life, and ocean-based tourism economies.
In 2009, oil companies and their lobbyists once again pushed the Florida Legislature to open Florida’s nearshore waters to oil drilling and overturn the state’s 20-year statutory prohibition on oil exploration in state waters. As the legislature often does with controversial measures, an amendment was quietly stuck onto another bill in the waning days of the legislative session to overturn the state ban. The Florida House then voted 70 to 43 to overturn the ban. Common sense prevailed in the senate, which then refused to take up the bill. Ironically, this vote came just four years after then-governor Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet, with widespread public support, signed a landmark deal to buy back the only two remaining near shore oil drilling leases along the Gulf coast to ensure there would be no drilling as long as the state-ban remained in effect.
In response to the 2009 legislative lobbying effort – and with the ultimate goal of convincing Floridians that oil drilling just off of our beaches was good for Florida – the legislature convened special hearings on the issue from November 2009 through March 2010, leaving open the possibility of extending them further into 2010. I attended the hearings and testified in opposition to drilling on behalf of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. During the hearings we heard testimony about how prepared the Coast Guard was to contain any spills. Oil industry spokespeople explained how oil and gas drilling in the Gulf was safer than ever and extolled their redundant safeguards. Economists explained the economic benefits to Floridians. Much time was spent on intra-agency preparedness and how quickly oil skimming vessels and containment booms could be deployed to Florida.
Then on April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon (DWH) drilling platform exploded, killing 11 people and spewing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Right when Florida was on the precipice of opening its coastline to drilling, the largest oil spill in US history unfolded—making international headlines. Plans for additional legislative hearings were cancelled and the effort to overturn the Florida ban on drilling was abandoned. As oil spread northeast toward the panhandle, the industry and the Coast Guard rushed to find skimmers to remove floating oil and containment booms to prevent oil from reaching Florida’s beaches. In contrast to the assurances during the hearings, there were extensive delays in finding and delivering the limited containment equipment. The weeks of hearings praising industry safety and preparedness rang hollow.
Five years after the DWH disaster, BP agreed in court to award Florida $3.2 billion for economic losses to coastal communities and the Florida seafood industry. Impacts to wildlife, particularly sea turtles, were catastrophic. As oil approached Florida’s panhandle beaches, wildlife agencies made the difficult decision to dig up hundreds of sea turtle nests before they hatched and move the eggs to oil-free beaches on the Atlantic side. The effort was to ensure the survival of as many hatchlings as possible that may have otherwise been oiled on the beach or in the surf. STC staff directly assisted in this effort. We spent days building nest boxes to hold the eggs for transport. Volunteers and agency staff worked tirelessly locating nests, removing eggs, and carefully placing them in the nest boxes.
Biologists and veterinarians with sea turtle expertise worked grueling hours at sea, locating and picking up oiled sea turtles. They were also searching for floating mats of Sargassum seaweed. Juvenile sea turtles seek out the Sargassum for refuge and foraging. Wind driven oil also collected in these mats. STC Executive Director David Godfrey assisted with some of these offshore surveys. The sea turtle biologists were trying to stay ahead of the oil clean-up crews that were setting fire to the oily mats in an effort to burn off the oil, killing any wildlife that were present.
The official government tally of sea turtle mortality was reported in NOAA’s Final Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan. That report estimated that between 4,900 and 7,600 large juvenile and adult sea turtles and between 55,000 and as many as 160,000 small juvenile sea turtles were killed by exposure to DWH oil. Further, “Approximately 4,000 to 7,000 square kilometers of Sargassum were oiled and determined to have been lost to the northern Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.” The impacts to dolphins, shorebirds and other wildlife were just as dire.
Despite all the lessons learned from the DWH spill, the oil companies and their hired lobbyists are at it once again. Inexplicably, they are finding support among many Florida lawmakers now that the oil spill headlines have faded. Fortunately, a grassroots effort is underway to ensure that oil drilling never takes place in Florida’s nearshore state waters. A citizen-driven amendment to Florida’s constitution (Amendment 9) will be on the ballot in November. Amendment 9 will permanently ban oil drilling in state waters by putting it in the Florida Constitution. It would prevent the Florida legislature and oil industry lobbyists from again doing what they tried to do in 2009. STC strongly supports Amendment 9 and encourages our Florida-based members and supporters to Vote YES on the amendment this November.