Oil drilling in Florida means goodbye to our beaches and tourism

1. Tourism is how we make money in Florida. Four dollars out of five are made on our beaches. Not to mention is the 6 million with jobs in tourism and their $226 billion in wages. Oil can’t replace that, but that’s the deal they’re asking us to swallow.

Florida’s number one economic asset is our pure white sugar sand. That’s what brings tourists to spend billions of dollars here, why Pinellas has America’s best rated beaches. Let’s face it, our scenery is not that spectacular, but the sand is the best part of our beaches. It’s what we sell – the experience of walking in our sand. For that privilege the world pays billions of dollars in Florida taxes and drives our economy the way nothing else, not even the Mouse, can come close to.

But now, both in Tallahassee and Washington, we’re being asked to throw it all away on a promise of new jobs and tax revenue by allowing a new business to start up here: oil. The only thing is, oil could only replace a tiny fraction of the sales tax revenue we’d lose when tourists stopped coming here if our beaches were to become clogged with tar balls the way they are in Texas. Not to mention the devastation in real estate values when our tourist destination is transformed into an industrial site. If you think condo values are low now, imagine the market for a balcony view of pipelines, rigs, and refineries.

What could possibly go wrong? If you were here in the early '90s you’ll remember a relatively tiny oil spill from a tanker accident. Result: In two years Pinellas County tourism dropped 45 percent, losing about $5 billion dollars in 2008 dollars. Get a clue.

2. Nobody needs it. There’s a huge glut now. All over the world, tankers are docked, rigs are shut down. The number of oil and gas rigs operating has dropped in half from last summer: 2400 to less than 1200. Thousands of oil and gas workers who migrated around the country to work in new fields for fat salaries have been laid off. 82% of America’s reserves are in places already open to drilling. And 30 million more acres were just leased in the Gulf four months ago.

So we’re being asked to accept a risk that our beaches will stay as beautiful as they are now, with a pittance of replacement of their current value, and to make this sacrifice - why? So America can become energy independent? Oil drilled here would enter the global market, with no more chance of getting into your gas tank than does oil from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. Whatever Florida might produce would be just a drop in the bucket of global supply. It’s impossible to have much of an effect on supply and demand when you have 4% of the supply and create 25% of the demand. Face it, America cannot drill its way out of its problems.

But there are other solutions available. The Interior Department now tells us America’s offshore wind potential alone exceeds our entire U.S. electricity demand. New fuel efficiency standards will save almost 2 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of cars sold in the next 5 years. If Congress passes legislation this fall promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy we’d reduce demand for natural gas and decrease prices 37 percent in the first year. And we can develop energy offshore in a way that does create new jobs and income for our state. While offshore oil and gas drilling is the slowest, dirtiest, and most expensive way to produce energy, investing in clean energy would create four times as many jobs as investing the same amount of money in oil. In Florida, we’d get over 120,000 new middle class jobs – that would mean more Florida families able to afford vacations on the beach again.

Offshore drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast is now completely unnecessary. There is absolutely no reason to sacrifice our local tourism economy to their oil rigs and pipelines. The oil industry is now making its last desperate grab for our beaches. Senator Dorgan of North Dakota, a renowned expert on coastal tourism, included drilling 45 miles from our beaches in his Senate Energy Committee bill. He’s surprised we’d have a problem with that when no one could see a rig 45 miles away, as if visual pollution is our only concern. As it stands, that could be part of the climate change bill that Congress will vote on this September. Florida’s Senator Bill Nelson has announced his determination to stop this foolishness by filibustering, and Mel Martinez and two dozen other senators now plan to back him.

What can you do? Tell Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson thanks for their continued strong opposition to drilling and spilling oil on America’s best beaches, drilling that would ruin our state’s number one economic resource: our beach sand. Tell everyone you know in the other 49 states we need their help right now to get their Senators to take Florida drilling out of the Senate’s energy bill. And tell Mel Martinez to support the move to clean energy and efficient buildings that the Senate will consider after Labor Day. While Martinez is against drilling here, he doesn’t yet understand how moving towards greater efficiency and renewable sources is the best protection our beaches could possibly have from drilling. Passing a climate bill in the Senate like the one recently passed by the House will move us away from the dirty fossil fuel that is also, by the way, having an effect on this whole global warming thing. Tell Mel he can protect Florida beaches from both being covered in oil and swamped by rising sea levels, by getting on board with Bill Nelson on the climate and energy bill.

Or you can do nothing and let the oil companies decide our future for us. You get to choose.

I just participated in a panel discussion on offshore drilling of our Florida beaches, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. Also joining me were Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, Senator Nelson’s staff Shahra Anderson, and the Ocean Conservancy’s TJ Marshall, acting as lobbyists for the oil industry from the Southern Strategies Group - the guys who came close last spring to getting our state legislature to okay oil drilling within 3 miles of our beaches.

Over and over, their message came across: “Trust us. The oil companies would never do anything to harm your beaches. Honest, we can drill and you’ll never see a spill, nary a drop nor a tar ball. Never mind that Texas beaches, naturally as nice as Florida’s, have almost zero tourism revenue because of the muck and tar balls that ruin a nice walk on the beach there. If we had anything to do with that, we’re sorry, but that would never happen here. We’re much more careful now. Trust us.”

Two problems with this argument:

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