How Florida might finally get a permanent offshore drilling ban on the books

Ban, baby, ban

click to enlarge OK ALL YOU GREASERS: A skimmer cleans oil in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster. - OK ALL YOU GREASERS: A skimmer cleans oil in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster. - NOAA/Public domain
NOAA/Public domain
OK ALL YOU GREASERS: A skimmer cleans oil in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster.OK ALL YOU GREASERS: A skimmer cleans oil in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster.

If anyone remembers the time Florida lawmakers tried to sneak a measure into law that would have killed the state’s offshore drilling ban, it’s Susan Glickman.

It was 2009 — just as the Tea Party backlash against Barack Obama was getting started — and offshore drilling had become something of a litmus for conservative cred in some circles.

After all, it was in Clearwater the prior year that then-VP nominee Sarah Palin had led supporters to chant “drill, baby, drill” just a short distance from Pinellas County’s number-one economic driver, the Gulf of Mexico.

That day in 2009, Glickman said, there were eight days left in session, and someone snuck an amendment that would have allowed offshore drilling into what she said was an otherwise “innocuous” resolution:

“You know, didn’t mean anything,” she said.

Before that, offshore oil drilling in state waters had been a “third rail” for the average Florida politician, Glickman said. And it largely has been since Deepwater Horizon took a toll on Florida’s economy in 2010.

“You don’t get elected in Florida without opposition to offshore drilling. There was some backing off of that, but the BP oil spill kind of re-shifted things again,” Glickman said. “So if there ever was an environmental proposal to get through given the current political leadership, this would be the one.”

The measure that would have ended Florida’s drilling moratorium ended up failing back in 2009, but environmentalists are wary of lawmakers potentially sneaking something similar through the legislature every single year.

Yet 2018 might be the year to fight back, and the best hope Glickman and others have is a proposal that could make it onto the Florida ballot in November.

It’s a constitutional amendment that would create a permanent ban on oil drilling in state waters. Currently on the books is a 20-year moratorium the legislature could easily vote to lift. The amendment would safeguard against that.

And, in a rare moment for environmentalists in Florida, the political climate might very well be in their favor.

State officials are currently considering hundreds of potential new amendments to the state constitution via an entity called the Constitution Revision Commission, which convenes every 20 years, and over the course of a year or so tours the state for public input on proposed amendments.

The panel consists of people appointed by Governor Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Lutz) and FL Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.

Glickman reasons that if Governor Scott is genuinely against offshore drilling, he would push for the constitutional amendment to pass the CRC.

Environmental groups and businesses are planning on rallying for the cause at a CRC meeting on Tuesday, March 13 at USF St. Petersburg. The hearing is slated to take place from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., and the public is allowed to comment.

“The CRC’s proposal 91 would be a historic opportunity for Floridians to protect our coast from offshore drilling,” said Hunter Miller, Southwest Florida campaign organizer with the environmental nonprofit Oceana. “Not only does it prohibit offshore drilling and exploration in our state waters but it sends a message to the federal government that our tourism based economies and oil do not mix.”

The idea is to put pressure on Scott and his appointees so that they act in the interest of science, economics and popular opinion.

Scott is likely going to challenge U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat who has been a stalwart opponent of offshore drilling, this year.

To look at Nelson’s and Scott’s histories on the offshore drilling issue is largely a study in contrast.

While Scott never waxed Palin-esque re oil drilling in state waters, he never shut out the idea completely. He has even said he supported the practice if it could be done safely — something environmentalists say is literally impossible.

Yet this year he did sort of an about-face when the Trump administration announced it was planning to open virtually all federal waters along the U.S. coastline to oil and gas exploration. In January, Scott met with President Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and shortly thereafter, the administration announced it would leave federal waters off Florida out of the plan.

So offshore drilling advocates hope to tie the proposal’s fate directly to Scott, who has of late appeared keenly aware of how environmental protection tends not to be bipartisan for Floridians.

“On Florida’s Gulf Coast, healthy oceans provide 380,000 jobs and over $18.2 billion in annual GDP, mainly through fishing, tourism and recreation,” said Oceana’s Miller. “You’re seeing an incredible display of unity that is uniquely bipartisan and touches so many different people.”

And if the CRC turns it down, advocates can point the finger at the elected officials who appointed them.

“If it gets on the ballot, yay. If it doesn’t, it’s Rick Scott’s fault,” Glickman said. “If he wants this protection for Florida’s coast, he’ll tell his people and they’ll put it on... We don’t always get that kind of clarity in politics, you know? And for me, from my point of view as an advocate, it’s a win-win.”

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