Florida Senate Chief Addresses Offshore Drilling Ban

June 10th, 2009 by

Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater says it’s only a matter of time before someone taps into the state’s offshore oil resources.

“It’s going to be the Chinese or someone else,” Atwater told The Forum Club of the Palm Beaches at the Kravis Center Monday. “At some point, we need to do this.”

Atwater said he was criticized in the media after his chamber refused to agree this spring to the House’s proposal to allow drilling between three and 10.5 miles off the coast.

But he said advocates for the measure brought it to him in the seventh week of a nine-week legislative session, which didn’t allow nearly enough time to consider all ramifications of a change of that magnitude.

The measure was backed by a group called Florida Energy Associates, reportedly comprised of independent oil companies, and championed by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who said it would fatten depleted state tax coffers.

A group called FloridaOil.org wants to ask voters in 2010 to lift the state’s longstanding ban on offshore oil and gas drilling. Its leader, Don Baldauf of Bradenton, has criticized Atwater for not agreeing to removal of the ban this spring.

The 19-year-old ban is in place to protect beaches and tourism dollars. But oil companies have been trying for years to tap into what they say are vast oil and gas reserves in the shallow waters off the Gulf Coast.

Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said in May he will run in 2010 to become Florida’s chief financial officer. The current holder of that office, Alex Sink, has said she will run for governor next year. Gov. Charlie Crist has said he will seek the U.S. Senate seat held by Mel Martinez, who has announced he won’t seek another term in 2010.

State Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-West Palm Beach, who attended Monday’s speech, said she voted against the House bill to reverse the ban.

Brandenburg said the gains in oil and natural gas would be very small on the global scale, and that drilling would not occur for 8 to 17 years after the ban were removed.

“The rosiest possibility would be that the cost of gasoline would come down about 3 cents a gallon,” she said.

“There also is a very small chance of a spill that could have a devastating impact on the tourism and fishing and shellfishing industries,” she said.

Atwater’s remarks were made in response after Monday’s speech when he responded to a question about offshore drilling and tourism.

During the speech, Atwater said the use of $3 billion in federal economic stimulus dollars was important in helping the state government overcome a $7 billion revenue shortfall tied to the weak national economy.

The federal money is being used mostly to meet health care, education and transportation costs.

Another $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars is being set aside for the budget year that begins July 1, 2010, he said. The legislature also cut spending to meet a constitutional requirement that the budget be balanced. Atwater said more tough decisions lie ahead next year.

“We’re in the longest recession in U.S. history,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough time.”

Florida’s unemployment has climbed from 3.4 percent to 9.7 percent during a three-year period through last winter. During that period, the average value of a home in Florida plunged from $258,000 to $142,000, dealing a tremendous blow to personal wealth, Atwater said.

Also Monday, Atwater said:

* He opposes as unfair to seniors a tax on intangible personal property.

* Agriculture is fading as one of the pillars of the state’s economy because of foreign competition. The state must invest in “intellectual capital” to foster an economy that will attract cutting-edge research and technology.

* He noted education spending per student has actually been increased in Florida, and pointed out the state has climbed to 10th in education quality, according to the Education Week newspaper.

Palm Beach Daily News

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