Senate panel narrows scope of bill that would allow oil drilling on state land

Feb 13, 2012

The following article was published in The Florida Current on February 13, 2012: 

Senate panel narrows scope of bill that would encourage oil drilling on state land

By Bruce Ritchie

A bill that seeks to encourage oil and gas exploration and drilling on state lands passed a Senate committee amid questions and some opposition. 

SB 1158 by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, authorizes land management agencies to enter into private partnerships with businesses. Any resulting drilling agreements, he said, would require approval from the Cabinet and state permits still would be required.

There has been oil pumping in the past in Blackwater River State Forest, and Evers said there may be oil and gas on other state lands. Fairways Exploration and Production LLC is exploring in Blackwater River State Forest under an agreement with the state and the adjacent Conecuh National Forest in Alabama.

“The state does not have the financial resources to explore these properties for these resources,” Evers said.

The Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities passed the bill by a 10-4 vote. Supporters may need to overcome concerns before the next committee stop: Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation.

Senators on the energy committee repeatedly asked where drilling could occur if the bill passed. Evers said he didn’t have a list of those state lands or a map.

Senators also questioned drilling supporters David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, and Dale Patchett, a lobbyist for Fairways Exploration and Production LLC who also is a former state representative and former deputy director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Associated Industries of Florida also supports the bill.

The committee on Monday adopted an amendment by Evers to allow the partnership agreements only on state lands whose management plans have been amended by the state Acquisition and Restoration Council to allow drilling. 

Patchett said only Blackwater River State Forest now has a management plan that allows oil and gas exploration and drilling.

Several senators continued to raise concerns, though, about whether drilling could occur along beaches or in the Ocala National Forest or the Everglades National Park, though neither qualify as state lands. Patchett said drilling is not allowed by state law within a mile of the coast.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, offered a handwritten amendment to exclude all “recreation” lands but she withdrew it after senators questioned the definition of those lands. Evers said he would work with Lynn to write an amendment before the next committee stop.

Opponents said there already is a process in state law that allows companies to seek lease arrangements with public lands agencies. Opponents included Audubon of Florida, Sierra Club Florida, Clean Water Action and the Everglades Foundation.

“I will say land management plans are changed regularly,” said Julie Wraithmell of Audubon of Florida. She said the bill “leaves the door open to look at other property to amend those plans, to expand it [drilling] to other locations.”

The House version of the bill, HB 695, cleared one committee stop with two more to go. Rep. Clay Ford, R-Pensacola and sponsor of HB 695, said he shares the environmental concerns that have been raised about the bill.

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