Pensacola, Florida
Saturday March 23rd 2019


Fighting for Florida’s Waters

By Jeremy Morrison

Folks in Florida tend to freak out about the prospects of drilling for oil or gas off the state’s shores. Even many of Florida’s former proponents of energy exploration in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico-like Gov. Rick Scott-have backed awkwardly away from the notion since the 2010 oil spill.

So, it was a big relief when, after seeing Florida’s waters included in a newly released national plan outlining future energy exploration, Gov. Scott was able to grab a quick meeting with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the Tallahassee airport and get the state cut from the proposed plan.

The governor had tweeted about his displeasure with Florida’s inclusion. Then Zinke tweeted the exemption announcement, and Scott retweeted that. Whew. Done deal.

Or, maybe not. Soon after that, an official with the Department of the Interior, actually the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) that manages offshore leasing, clarified for a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources that the secretary’s tweet was “not a formal action.”

“It’s pretty widely believed it’s a political thing,” shrugged Pensacola environmentalist Christian Wagley, laying out the theory that paints Florida’s inclusion-turned-exemption as the Trump Administration throwing Scott a backward-engineered favor as the governor eyes a bid for the Senate seat held by Sen. Bill Nelson.

What Zinke’s policy-by-tweet move accomplished in the immediate was drumming up a chorus of governors from others states also requesting exemptions and possible legal challenges from the energy industry.

“I think it opened up this huge can of worms,” Wagley said.

In any case, BOEM is proceeding with a slate of public hearings scheduled in a handful of locales across the country to collect public input on the draft version of the 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The proposed plan outlines how much of the nation’s offshore area is open for energy exploration for the prescribed five-year period.

In Florida, environmentalists from around the state attended BOEM’s Feb. 8 hearing in Tallahassee to voice their objection to the proposed leasing plan. Wagley, as an organizer for Gulf Restoration Network, assembled a group from the Panhandle and rented a 15-passenger van for a field trip to the capitol.

Information Stations and a Brick Wall
After an early Thursday morning drive to Tallahassee, the Pensacola environmentalists spilled out of their Chevy van and into the lobby of the Sheraton hotel. All abuzz from coffee and conversation and carrying a collection of hand-painted signs.

Just inside the hotel door, BOEM had set up sign-up sheets and computer stations for attendees to type in their comments regarding the offshore leasing proposal. Unlike traditional public meeting formats, people were not afforded a public forum to voice their comments.

“They don’t really want you to speak publicly at these meetings,” Wagley had explained earlier. “It makes them look bad. It’s awkward for them.”

BOEM representatives armed with visual aids and handouts manned each station. The information stations covered the assessment and final approval process, the federal government’s oversight of energy exploration to ensure “environmental sustainability,” outlined the “economic contributions” of offshore oil and gas drilling, and presented information about BOEM’s efforts to “minimize the impacts of human-generated sound on marine life.”

The information stations were meant to educate attendees so that they could offer, as Mike Celata, regional director for BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico Region, put it, “effective comments.”

Down the hallway from the BOEM affair, a collective of environmental organizations staged a tandem meeting dubbed the ‘People’s Hearing.’ That’s where Celata would have found some less-than-positive feedback regarding the new leasing proposal.

“I did not peek in on that,” Celata said.

The “People’s Hearing” provided people a venue to speak publicly on the subject of offshore drilling and the new proposal specifically. A  court reporter recorded comments so that they would be entered into BOEM’s official collection.

Among those speaking at this event were environmentalists, business owners, scientists and academics. There was a representative from the Florida Association of Counties, and one from Sen. Nelson’s office. They all symbolically directed their comments toward a brick-wall prop sporting a sticker reading “Hello, my name is BOEM.”

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson was the only elected official to make the event in Tallahassee. Familiar with the risks of drilling after being deeply involved in the response efforts following the 2010 spill, the Panhandle official spoke about the number of local resolutions his county commission has taken in opposition to drilling in Florida. He discussed the efforts afoot to roll back safeguards and regulations in the offshore industry and the need for a united front against drilling off of Florida.

“We believe it is not compatible with anything we want to do in Florida, whether that continues to be dealing with our military, our Air Force and Navy, or just our natural amenities and tourism,” Robinson said at the hearing. “We do not believe drilling is consistent with the state of Florida.”

Groundhog Day All Over Again
Standing outside of the People’s Hearing, Erin Handy, a Florida campaign organizer for Oceana and one of the ringleaders of the day’s event, caught her breath. She felt pretty good about the turnout, and also hopeful considering the depth of opposition-from municipalities, newspaper editorial boards, politicians of every stripe, the general public-lining up against drilling in Florida.

“It’s unpopular, it’s unacceptable, and it’s widely opposed,” Handy said.

The Oceana organizer recalled how she felt last month when the Trump Administration first released the new leasing proposal.

“We weren’t surprised,” Handy smiled, noting that environmentalists find themselves fending off offshore drilling in Florida somewhat routinely. “It feels kind of like ‘Groundhog Day.’ We find ourselves again fighting the same fight all over again.”

This most recent offshore leasing proposal is breathtaking in its ambition. The proposed plan green lights pretty much the entirety of the U.S.’s offshore real estate, except the North Aleutian Basin in Alaska, an area President Barack Obama withdrew from consideration in 2014.

Whereas Louisiana’s waters, with oil platforms galore, might be considered a blood sacrifice to the energy industry, waters off of Florida have traditionally been held sacred and thus untouched. This is due in part to the prevailing position in the state that Florida’s oil-spill-susceptible tourism economy is too precious to risk for any benefits drilling might bring. And where the Gulf of Mexico is concerned, it is also because since 2006 the eastern Gulf has been protected by legislation that codified the military’s viewpoint that drilling would interfere with training exercises in the area.

But that protection-which Sen. Nelson was instrumental in securing-sunsets in a few years, and the eastern Gulf could theoretically come up for grabs under this recently released offshore leasing proposal. That decision will be made by Secretary Zinke later this year after BOEM wraps up its public input periods and plan revisions.

But if Zinke’s Twitter pronouncement can be believed, Florida may be ultimately taken off the table.

“I think we’re going to be ok,” Wagley said optimistically, adding that the drilling opponents still needed to make their voices heard and drive home the point. “We have to be clear, not just roll over.”

That’s what Handy hopes the environmentalists’ hearing down the hall from BOEM’s official meeting accomplished-giving the opposition a platform to say their piece.

“Until we see the final version of the proposed plan,” she said, “we will continue to fight this because Florida is still at risk.”