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BP Anniversary Has Florida Pushing For Extending A Ban On Oil Drilling In The Eastern Gulf

Deepwater Horizon drilling platform on fire in 2010.
US Coast Guard

Opposition to offshore drilling in Florida has unified lawmakers on both sides of the aisle since a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago. Today the state’s congressional delegation is fighting to keep oil and gas development out of nearby federal waters.

Many Florida lawmakers who oppose offshore drilling near the state’s coast haven’t forgotten the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

“The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is still fresh in my mind. And it’s still fresh in the minds of all of my neighbors up and down the Gulf coast," said Tampa Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, speaking on the House floor in September in support of a bill to permanantly ban offshore oil drilling in the Eastern Gulf. 

U.S. Rep Kathy Castor speaks before former Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist at a campaign rally Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Crist announced that he is running again for governor, this time as a Democrat.
Credit Chris O'Meara / AP Photo
AP Photo
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor speaks before former Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist at a campaign rally Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Crist announced that he is running again for governor, this time as a Democrat.

"It was devastating. April 20, 2010. You all probably remember, because CNN had the video from the oil well that continued to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico through May, through all of June, all of July, August, and they didn’t cap the well until late in September.”

Before the legislation passed, she reminded her colleagues of the widespread economic damages the state’s coastal communities felt after the spill.

“It wiped out mom-and-pop businesses, restaurants, hotels, everyone that relies on clean water and clean beaches for their livelihoods. Fishermen couldn’t fish. It was a catastrophe. Gulf seafood was off the menu. That meant people weren’t coming to the mom-and-pop restaurants for their meals.”

Oil and gas drilling has been off-limits in federal Gulf waters at least 100 miles from the state’s coast for more than a decade. But the temporary ban is set to expire in two years. If that happens, plans to open the area to oil and gas developers could move forward.

Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville)
Credit The Florida Channel
Former state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, during his time in the Florida legislature.

“Extending and/or making permanent this moratorium has unanimous support among all Floridians in both political parties at the state level, at the federal level. And the reason is really not because of energy per se - it’s because of the circumstances in Florida that are very unique. We have a very important military testing and training complex, the joint Gulf range complex out in the Gulf, and by all accounts, without dispute, having exploration out there would absolutely undermine this critical resource," said U.S. Florida Senator Marco Rubio at U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s confirmation hearing last month.

A 2018 report from the Department of Defense explains how unfettered oil and gas development in the eastern Gulf would interfere with military training and weapons testing.  Former Republican state Senate President Don Gaetz of Destin says that’s a problem for the region’s economic diversification, which relies on the success of nearby Navy and Air Force bases.

“All of us who care about coastal Northwest Florida, we have to make sure that the Eglin Test Range out in the Gulf of Mexico is not besmirched by offshore oil and gas drilling because if it is we will lose the Eglin Test Range. We’ll lose our economic advantages and national security advantages from the military," he said.

With bipartisan support from Florida’s congressional delegation, the House passed a permanent ban on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf last fall. But an extension to the current moratorium has yet to get a vote in the Senate.

“We’re fortunate to have members of Congress in both parties in Florida’s delegation who are working hard to make that happen. We have a commitment from President Trump to support the Eglin Test Range, but we also have a lot of people in the oil and gas industry, who want to make sure that their industry is taken care of," Gaetz said. "We have a fight coming in Congress to protect coastal Northwest Florida, economically, military and environmentally.” 

Some 210 million gallons of crude were released into the ocean during the BP oil spill, which began after a well blowout south of Louisiana. Dark oil slicks eventually reached the panhandle’s beaches up to 200 miles away. Florida State University oceanographer Markus Huettel says beach-goers might find tar balls on top of the sand, but he says those aren’t likely from the BP oil spill.

Pensacola Beach
Credit Blankfaze via wikimedia commons
Tar balls can still be found on the surface, and below, the white sands of Pensacola Beach. Oil beneath the surface is likely from the BP Oil Spill of 2010.

We have a lot of natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico, so there’s constantly oil being released through the water and washing to the shores. Whenever you go, you may find on the shore, these little tar balls, they are called, little oil-sediment conglomerates, that sit there on the beach.” 

But buried in the sand about two feet below the surface sit golf-ball sized chunks of crude from the spill. Huettel says research his team did in Pensacola reveals these oil clumps could take decades to biodegrade.

We cannot leave our guard down and say ‘Oh, OK, it’s all gone now,’ because what’s left takes 30 years to be degraded. So, if you’re not careful with that, and you’re not aware of that, then it can be very misleading. If you see now what happens in the news, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well now, the oil is gone.’ It’s gone because a tremendous effort was put up to remove the oil.”

Huettel says another massive oil spill in the Gulf could have a dangerous cumulative effect.

“Then there’s constantly oil being entered to the marine environment from ships, boats, and the oil platforms. They all have little leaks and bigger leaks. If you have an outboard engine with an old two-stroke motor, it releases oil into the water that washes to the shore. So, there’s a constant release of oil and oil components to the beach.” 

The Gulf’s offshore oil output has reached record highs in the last few years. Nearly two million barrels are produced from its seafloor each day. And federal lease sales are opening up more territory for development. Industry lobbyist David Mica leads the Florida Petroleum Council, a division of the American Petroleum Institute. He says offshore drilling is much safer than it was ten years ago, "because over the last decade, there’s been more than 250 new or revised standards for offshore exploration and production and significant new guidance related to well design, blowout prevention, spill response."                        

In the last decade, the U.S. has become the world’s leading oil and gas producer.  Mica says the industry will continue to push for policies that maintain the country’s energy independence.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Credit Marco Rubio youtube
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio during a TV interview.

"Removal of access to potential resources is not in our nation’s energy interests, and we’ll continue to try to do our best message to the administration and to those in Congress that are decision makers," he said.

Environmental groups maintain offshore drilling is still a dangerous and dirty enterprise.

“Anybody who was watching as Deepwater Horizon unfolded for 87 days, I mean, people would’ve done anything to stop that spill, but it couldn’t be stopped. And that was a horrific moment. To think that ten years later, we would still be having a conversation about not only allowing drilling to continue in the Gulf, but talking about expanding this to areas that have been protected from drilling for many decades and allowing drilling to get even closer to Florida’s coast, it’s mind-boggling," said Diane Hoskins, a campaign director with the international marine conservation group, Oceana.

Voters in Florida passed a state constitutional amendment two years ago banning offshore drilling three miles off the Atlantic coast and nine miles out in the Gulf.  Unless the U.S. Senate acts, plans to open federal waters near the state’s coast are expected to move forward in the next few years.