Last night in Tallahassee, proponents and opponents of offshore drilling debated for two hours in a debate sponsored by Florida State University and Gannett Florida, the owner of the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, and broadcast over the internet from the Florida State University web site (which is how I viewed it).
Speaking against the proposal was Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, Eric Draper from Audubon of Florida and David McLain, from Apalachicola Bay and Riverkeeper.
Drilling proponents on the panel were economist Hank Fishkind, powerful lobbyist David Rancourt of the Southern Strategy Group and Terry Cunningham of the Florida Grassroots Energy Forum.
One of the first questions asked to Rancourt was - who is actually in Florida Energy Associates, the mysterious group that is pushing for the legislature to pass laws allowing for offshore drilling(And has hired at least 30 lobbyists to move the measure forward)?
Rancourt named the two officials already outed, as it were: GOP activist Lance Phillips, and Daytona Beach attorney Doug Daniels. The others, Rancourt said, "choose to be anonymous." He said not everybody in the (oil and natural gas) industry wants to be named, calling it a competitive thing. But he wanted to emphasize in case anyone was worried: They are all Americans.
Ken Welch came back and said he wanted to know if they were Floridians(to no response).
Rancourt then tried to put the onus on the opponents, saying he had no idea who was funding them, but he knew that if the proposal goes down, people like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the folks at OPEC would be the beneficiaries.
Economist Hank Fishkind busted out some formidable financial figures on what he claims would result from repealing the 1990 ban on oil drilling, saying opening the waters to exploration would create 20,000 jobs and bring in more than $2 billion to the state. He also called the chances of an oil spill virtually infinitesimal, with the odds below 1%.
There was also some heat unleashed when debating the recent oil spill in Australia, where cleanup costs are now said to be over $160 million. Commissioner Welch tried to quash the concept that new drilling techniques make spills like those in Australian obsolete, but Cunningham came back and said that nobody really knows what technology was used there.
Also sitting at their own desk during the discussion were Florida's incoming leaders, Senator Mike Haridopolos and Representative Dean Cannon. Haridopolos and Commissioner Welch got into a tete-e-tete at one point about the Legislature promising property tax relief but not ultimately delivering. It was a diversion, but an entertaining one at that.
Both legislators are pushing hard to repeal the drilling ban, yet acted as if they were in fact above the fray last night, just enjoying a good debate so they have good "policy information" to go forward next year in the legislature.
More debates around the state are expected before next March, when the legislature convenes.