Miami Herald: Oil-drilling interests targeting state senate

Oct 20, 2009

The Miami Herald published this artible on October 20, 2009

After failing once before, proponents of coastal oil drilling will target the state’s senate.


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — The aggressive push for oil drilling off Florida’s shores is backed by a coalition of powerful, well-financed business interests who are determined to succeed where they failed before: the Florida Senate.

But even as proponents insist they will corral the votes they need, Senate skeptics are multiplying — and they include the chamber’s presiding officer and several key Republicans who sound increasingly hostile to the idea.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, who is running for state chief financial officer, is not convinced that Floridians increasingly support drilling. Moreover, he says that it is not a priority in 2010.

“The oil drilling matter is not on the Senate agenda for the coming session,” Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said flatly.

Beyond Atwater’s apathy, several veteran Republican senators — some representing beachfront districts — are on record as saying they would not vote for a drilling bill. They include Sens. Victor Crist, R-Tampa; Dennis Jones, R-Seminole; Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; and Durell Peaden, R-Crestview.

“Once you ruin those pristine beaches, they’re ruined forever,” said Peaden, a retired doctor who worked for Texaco before he went to medical school. He describes out-of-state oilmen as “shysters” promoting a “shell game” at the expense of the tourism economy.

“It’s all about campaign money,” Peaden said. “And it’s one big crapshoot.”

Another coastal senator is Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. He says he is open to learning more about drilling but would vote no, “knowing what I know now.”

“I don’t think the Senate has the votes right now,” Bennett said.

In the 40-member Senate, 21 votes are required to pass a bill. With the chamber made up of 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats, the Republican opposition does not necessarily kill the issue.

There is no bill filed for the coming session, but last spring’s failed idea — unveiled in the final days of the 2009 legislative session — proposed giving the governor and Cabinet the authority to accept bids from oil companies interested in drilling as close as three miles from the Florida coast.

The House voted 70-43, mostly along party lines, to repeal the drilling ban, but the Senate did not consider the bill, saying the House was trying to move too fast on a complex issue with major implications.

Now the Senate has a champion: Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Space Coast Republican who is poised to become Senate president a year from now.

“I’m not going to pretend everyone is on board,” said Haridopolos, R-Indialantic. “Whoever is saying what they say now, that might change. The facts will take us where we need to go.”

The man who could really steer the drilling debate is Atwater. As Senate president, he alone determines which committees hear which bills and when. He has the power to keep a bill off the agenda entirely, or fast-track it for consideration by the full Senate.

He promises that in addition to Senate consideration, he will recruit a third party, like a think tank or a university, to provide a fact-based analysis of the pros and cons of offshore drilling.

“It will be looked at in the most independent manner possible,” said Atwater, who is openly skeptical of pro-drilling forces’ polling showing widespread public support. In July 2008, a Quinnipiac University poll surveyed 1,248 Florida voters and found that 60 percent of Floridians supported offshore drilling while 36 percent opposed and 4 percent had no opinion. The margin of error was 2.8 percent. Other recent polls, commissioned by drilling supporters, show growing support for drilling.