White House keeps ban on oil drilling off Florida coast

December 2nd, 2010 by Staff

Source: TBO — In a reversal, the Obama administration said today it will not pursue offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the East Coast of the United States.

A senior administration official told The Associated Press that drilling leases won’t be considered in the waters off Florida for at least the next seven years because of the BP oil gusher.

He said that because of the BP incident, the administration now understands the need to elevate safety and environmental standards. Just a few weeks before the spill, the administration had considered a plan to allow drilling in the eastern Gulf.

Steve Yerrid, a Tampa attorney who is Florida’s special counsel on oil matters, called the Obama decision a “prudent move.”

“For us, it would be a death blow if we had an environmental disaster on the west coast of Florida,” he said. “We got a glimpse into the nightmare. I don’t think we have to live the whole thing. Putting our west coast at risk would be a reckless decision.”

Sen.-elect Marco Rubio said he did not agree with the Obama administration’s decision.

“I believe offshore oil exploration should continue to be a part of America’s energy mix, so long as it can be done safely,” Rubio said in a statement this afternoon. “The administration’s new policy is an obstacle to job creation and imperils our national security by making us more dependent on foreign oil from hostile regimes.”

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said White House officials informed her of the decision this morning because “they have learned their lessons” from the BP disaster. Castor filed legislation last month that, if approved by Congress, would divert most of the billions of dollars in fines BP is expected to pay to the Gulf Coast states impacted by the spill.

“I think the BP oil blowout was a wake-up call,” Castor said. The ban on new drilling is “important protection for our economy, jobs and environment,” she said.

Keith Overton, the chief operating officer of the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, agreed.

“Personally speaking, we certainly don’t want offshore drilling anywhere near the coast of Florida,” said Overton, who also is the chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “I have said all along the moment you put a rig out there, it changes the branding of Florida entirely.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, also welcomed the announcement from the White House.

“It’s good the president is listening to the people of Florida,” Nelson said in a statement.

Nelson’s spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, said the senator hopes governor-elect Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers will also “commit to protecting the state’s tourism economy and unique environment.”

Nelson plans to meet with Scott this afternoon to discuss oil drilling, high-speed rail and other issues.

Today’s news was also applauded by Peter Clark, executive director of Tampa Bay Watch, a local environmental group.

“That’s totally appropriate, I am glad they are moving back in that direction,” Clark said. “That was part of Obama’s campaign, to protect near-shore waters off the state of Florida. Many of us were concerned he was backpedaling once he got elected.”

Clark and others watched anxiously earlier this year as about 200 million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf after a rig exploded and collapsed off the Louisiana coastline.

Some oil washed onto Panhandle beaches in North Florida, but the stain on tourism affected the entire state’s economy and tourism.

“It was truly an eye-opening experience,” Clark said. “I am glad it opened many of those eyes in Washington to the value of our shoreline areas.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planned to discuss the decision this afternoon.

The area that includes the waters off Florida’s coast had been considered for drilling as part of the management plan for the Outer Continental Shelf. Just a month before the April spill, the Obama administration had announced plans to allow drilling in the eastern Gulf.

The eastern Gulf of Mexico — an area stretching from 125 to 300 miles off Florida’s coast — was singled out for protection by Congress in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida lawmakers that made available 8.3 million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf. The protected region is to remain off limits to energy development until 2022.

But the administration had entertained the idea of expanded drilling, until the BP spill that spewed an estimated 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Florida has long banned drilling in its state-controlled waters — those immediately off its shores, before federal jurisdiction takes over farther out — because of fears that a spill would damage its beaches, the state’s biggest tourism draw. But even state lawmakers, including Gov. Charlie Crist, were considering opening those waters to drilling before the spill.

On Wednesday, Crist called the decision “wonderful news”

“That’s news that will be very favorably received by the tourist industry throughout the state, but also by the people,” Crist said.

He also said he’s not surprised that the BP spill would make the administration take another look at its management plan, considering it was one of the country’s largest environmental disasters.

“If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what would be,” Crist said. “If that doesn’t have an impact on your thinking, you must not be thinking.”

Both Nelson and Castor have stressed to the Obama administration that if oil drilling were allowed off the Florida coast, one spill would destroy the tourism-driven economy and ruin environmentally sensitive sites.

“Florida’s long-term economic health is dependent upon clean water and clean beaches,” Castor said.

The decision to abandon offshore drilling along the East Coast follows questions raised by the president’s oil spill commission as to why top-level administration officials were not consulted before the drilling expansion was announced in March.

At the time, Obama said he did not make the decision lightly and had looked at it closely for more than a year with Salazar and other administration officials.

But in August, White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco told the commission that they were not directly involved in the decision.

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