Policy Initiatives: Coastal Policy: Oil Drilling

On October 14th, STC and 8 other conservation groups sent a letter to Florida’s Governor and distributed an accompanying press release. The letter asks that the Governor use the power of his office to ensure a deliberative and comprehensive discussion of all the critical issues surrounding the debate over oil exploration and drilling in Florida waters. It also states the organizations’ opposition to lifting the statutory ban on near shore oil drilling and highlights the ongoing Australian oil spill. The press release highlights the letter to the Governor and the environmental risks posed by oil drilling in Florida’s near shore waters.

STC, along with many of the state’s conservation organizations, costal recreation groups, local coastal governments and toruism organizations are greatly concerned over the recent headlong push by the oil industry and a hanful of state legislators to open Flroida’s waters to oil and gas exploration and drilling. We are working with these organizations to oppose the push to drill. We are also supporting the strongest prtoecions possible for Florida’s invaluable coastal and marine resources should drilling ultimately be allowed. The drilling debate is about ensuring comprehensive long-term protection for Florida’s beaches, sea grass beds, estuaries, reefs, mangroves, and coastal waters.

For the last two decades the exploration for oil and natural gas and the selling of drilling leases on the ocean floor has been banned in Florida’s waters. Support for this ban has been rock solid and bipartisan. For many years Florida’s elected leaders have embraced the idea that the potential short term gains from oil drilling revenues are far outweighed by the risks from possible oil spills. Florida’s spectacular beaches and rich marine environments which underpin the states 560 billin dollar coastal and ocean economy should not be subjected to risks of oil spills and marine pollution associated with the exploration, transportation and storage of oil and natural gas. Tourism alone is a 65 billion-a-year business in Flroida. In 2001, then Governor George Bush stated that prohibiting oil and gas drilling “is clearly the environmentally and economically rational choice for Florida.”

So what has changed? During the final days of the 2008 Florida legislative session the soon to be speaker of the house, Representative Dean Cannon, introduced legislation to do away with the long-standing ban on oil drilling and to open Florida’s coastal waters to drilling. Florida’s waters extend from the beach to three miles out into the Atlantic and to ten miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. Cannon’s bill was not heard in any legislative committee nor debated by the public. It quickly passed the Florida House of Representaives by a large margin. Caution and statesmanship prevailed in the Senate as Senator Atwatr, the Senate President, refused to take up the oil drilling legislation. He asserted that such an important and complicated shift in policy should not be rushed through without debate and a complete analysis. Repressentative Cannon has vowed to reintroduce his bill in the 2010 legislative session which begins in March. Some leaders in the Senate have also expressed a similar intention to introduce and support drilling legislation.

The aggressive push to drill is being led by a shadowy group known as Florida Energy Associates. The group is supposedly made up of unidentified oilmen from Texas. The Miami Herald reports this group is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in Tallahassee and has hired dozens of prominent Tallahassee lobbyists and a prominent Tallahassee media firm to sell their “drill now” agenda.

It is important for Floridians and others concerned about marine turtles and Florida’s coastal and marine resources to learn about this issue and make their voices heard. Many of the issues are summarized in an article by Leon county commissioner Bob Rackleff .

Oil spills from exploration for and transportation of oil and gas pose substantial risks to marine turtles and to the habitats they rely upon. Oil from spills and leaks that sit on the surface of the water doesnt really stick to sea turtles like it would to other marine species. But oil can get in their eyes, on their skin, and in their lungs when they come to the surface to breathe. Although turtles may be the toughest in terms of resisting some of the immediate physical damage from oil spills, they have proved to be more vulnerable to exposure that happens indirectly through the food they eat. Not only do larger spills pose a problem for the turtles, studies have shown that continuous exposure over time will weaken a sea turtle’s overall health, making it more susceptible to other dangers. A study of loggerhead turtles found that they will indiscriminately eat anything that appears to be the appropriate food size, including tar balls. The effects on the digestive system were large esophageal swelling that displaces the liver and intestines, causing severe swelling and buoyancy problems. The study also examined the effect of oil on all stages of life.

In a 2002 study hundreds of tiny hatchling sea turtles were captured offshore of Florida’s mid-Atlantic coast nesting beaches. Turtles were captured along the “downwelling lines” that form along the western edge of the Gulfstream. The baby turtles were among the floating mats of Sargassum that accumulates in these areas. 20% of the hatchlings studied had ingested tar that had accumulated in their gut or on their mouth. Smaller amounts of plastic were also found. In an similar 1994 study 63% of the baby turtles had ingested tar. Testing revealed the tar was likely crude oil associated with tanker transport. The authors stated that the ingestion of materials like tar and plastic is likely to have both lethal and sublethal effects. (Read full research paper ).

What Can You Do?

  • Speak out against off shore drilling. The most effective way to affect the drilling debte is to contact your elected state legislators and let them know you oppose drilling in Flroida’s near shore waters and that you support increased protections for beaches and coastal habitats. It is also important to contact the Governor, the Presidentof the Seante, and the Speaker of the House.
  • Support a comprehensive coastal and ocean resource mangaemtn plan. (Hot link to letter to the Governor on the FCOC page). This would include an assessment of coastal and marine resources and habitats, the services they provide, and potential impacts from oil exploration, drilling and transport. Such planning should take place before the first oil lease is sold and long before any wells are drilled.
  • Reducing oil consumption by carpooling, using public transportation or driving energy-efficient vehicles;
  • Support renewable energy initiatives and the creation of jobs in energy conservation and renewables in order to end Florida’s dependence on oil.

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