With Oil’s Rise, Floridians Shift on Drilling

Jun 25, 2008

Wall Street Journal–June 23, 2008


Neighbors Jo Ellen Sharp and Kristin Jenkins stood beside each other after a day on the beach of this barrier island, divided by the thought that Florida’s corner of the Gulf of Mexico could some day be dotted by gigantic oil rigs.
[taking sides]

“This is such a big part of our economy and our lifestyle; nobody is going to come here if there is drilling,” said Ms. Sharp, 39 years old, who runs a marketing firm with her husband.

Ms. Jenkins quickly cut in. “Do what you’ve got to do,” the 35-year-old schoolteacher said. “If it’s going to help with gas prices, as long as they put it far enough out that we don’t see it.”

Consumer anger over high gasoline prices is driving a reconsideration of the U.S. ban on coastal drilling for oil and natural gas, even in Florida, where conservation and tourism concerns have long bolstered a bipartisan consensus against offshore production.

Now, there are signs of a shift in sentiment in the state, particularly in large suburban areas that have been hard hit by skyrocketing home insurance, the housing bust and funding cuts, forced by state budget deficits, to schools and other services.

A Florida poll taken by Rasmussen Reports Wednesday, after Republican presidential candidate John McCain first called for lifting a 27-year-old ban on U.S. offshore drilling, found that 61% of respondents agreed with him that drilling would lower gas prices. A third of respondents agreed with likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama that lifting the ban “wouldn’t do a thing” to lower gas prices. Sen. Obama opposes offshore drilling.

A St. Petersburg Times poll in 2006, when gas cost $3 a gallon, specifically asked voters’ opinions on lifting the offshore-drilling moratorium and found state residents evenly divided. Even if more drilling is permitted, it’s unlikely to mar beach vistas for some time because of a law that restricts drilling within 125 miles of Florida’s coast until 2022.

Rick Falkenstein, whose family has owned the St. Pete Beach landmark Hurricane Seafood Restaurant since 1977, said fuel surcharges passed to him by alcohol and food suppliers have raised his operating costs by nearly 4%. And, he says, tourist traffic has thinned.

The restaurant had resorted to charging a dime for the lettuce, tomatoes and onions that go with its signature Grouper sandwich. Fries now cost 50 cents. “Just things we have to do to still be on this corner for another 30 years,” Mr. Falkenstein said.

A jovial 54-year-old man with a ruddy complexion from a lifetime on the beach, he recalled business slowing to a crawl in 1993 when the beaches lining Tampa Bay were contaminated after three vessels collided and spilled 300,000 gallons of thick heating oil and 33,000 gallons of jet fuel.

“It was bad,” he said. “But now, what are we going to do? I say go ahead and drill. I don’t envy any of the politicians who have to make that decision, because there was plenty of time before to find alternatives. But we don’t have much choice now.”

The belief that a pro-drilling stand was political suicide in the Sunshine State once kept Florida Republicans on the side of environmentalists on the issue. Now, that link is weakening.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist drew ridicule from Democrats and environmental groups last week when he suddenly abandoned his long opposition to drilling for oil and natural gas off his state’s shores. Accusations flew that the “green governor” — who had solar panels installed on the governor’s mansion — sold out to raise his stock as a possible running mate to Arizona Sen. McCain.

Gov. Crist said he merely wants to lower energy costs and that only environmentally safe extraction will do.

Polls indicate that he and Sen. McCain may have made the right move. The Rasmussen poll surveyed respondents on the presidential candidates twice in the same interview — once before they knew the candidates’ respective positions on drilling and again after being told. The poll showed that upon learning of Sen. McCain’s call for more drilling, respondents in the second set of results boosted their support for him over Sen. Obama by two percentage points, to 49% to 38%. Florida will be a critical state in the November election.

A procession of Republican onetime drilling opponents has followed Sen. McCain and Gov. Crist, including Florida’s Sen. Mel Martinez, Rep. Connie Mack and state House Speaker Mark Rubio.

Nationally, the Republican Party is taking the opportunity to champion a critical economic issue for voters to try to gain lost momentum heading into the general election. House Republicans are pushing a measure to open most portions of the Outer Continental Shelf, prompting a counterproposal from Democrats.

As early as this week, the House is expected to vote on legislation backed by Democrats that would force oil companies to speed production on land and waters they lease from the federal government, or pay escalating fees. The bill represents the Democrats’ effort to follow strong public support for increased U.S. energy output without removing the drilling ban and alienating environmentalists.

An important test for Republicans will be whether they can sway Florida Rep. Bill Young, who represents St. Petersburg and other beach communities on the Gulf. Mr. Young is the longtime chief sponsor of the measure that reauthorizes the drilling ban every year.

Mr. Young said he is satisfied the waters off his district’s coast are protected from a possible removal of the ban by the 125-mile buffer. Mr. Young says he is open to debating the ban on areas of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But he says he is sympathetic to complaints the oil-and-gas industry isn’t producing on much of the federal offshore acreage it already has leased. Industry officials say much of that territory is in areas that make it difficult to generate sufficient profits.

“What’s the logic of adding more areas when you don’t use the leases you already have?” Mr. Young said.