Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 17th 2019

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Stumping for Offshore Drilling

By Jeremy Morrison

Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb was clearly pissed, his lowering brow locking down into a devastating scowl. As he began to back away slowly, it became obvious the interview would be very brief. Only time for one more question—how much is API paying him to push for expanded offshore oil drilling?

“None of your business,” Webb growled as he turned and walked out of the Pensacola Bay Center.

The former senator—who also served as the secretary of the Navy and had a brief presidential bid under the Democratic ticket in 2016—was in Pensacola Thursday on behalf of Explore Offshore, a project of the American Petroleum Institute (API) aimed at selling both lawmakers and the public on expanding offshore energy exploration in the Gulf of Mexico as well as off the Atlantic Coast. The initiative includes representatives from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Virginia, the state Webb represented in the Senate 2007-2013.

As the co-chair of the Explore Offshore coalition for API, Webb had just wrapped his pitch for a roomful of about 50 people dining on cold deli sandwiches at the Bay Center. It was a tough room and his only event in the region, aside from a friendly meeting at the Pensacola Yacht Club with local veterans earlier in the day.

He’d made the pitch in Jacksonville, too, but that was different.

“It’s not like here, where the oil spill was,” explained the woman handling publicity for the API events.

Webb referenced that very point during his local remarks.

“I know I’m in dead center, I’m in the bullseye of the debate, talking to people here in Pensacola,” Webb said, before explaining how he was “very impressed by the improvements that had been made since this last oil spill” and how “we’re not talking here about the type of environment that produced tar in Santa Monica when I was a kid” but rather something too far out in the Gulf to be a bother—“way over the sightline.”

Where the Gulf of Mexico is concerned, the API would like to see waters off of Florida’s coast opened up to oil and natural gas exploration. While other states along the Gulf Coast allow for offshore drilling, Florida has always abstained, with lawmakers of varying stripes opposing drilling because of either environmental risks or the potential threat it poses to the state’s tourism economy. The military has also opposed drilling in that area due to interference with training exercises, with the so-called Military Mission Line protection being enshrined in federal law until 2022.

Every five years, the federal government releases an updated leasing schedule for parcels in the Gulf. The most recently released, yet-to-be-approved plan includes parcels off of Florida, though there have been casual assurances from D.C. that the state is safe from drilling.

Webb explained that following the release of a proposed drilling plan from the president, there is typically a process of “debate, discussion, cooperation.” As the current proposal undergoes public scrutiny and debate, Explore Offshore is looking to participate in that discussion.

“That’s why I’m down here now,” Webb said.

During his presentation, the former senator said that the country needed to expand offshore exploration as a matter of national and economic security. He pointed to increasing global energy demand and contented that viable renewable energy sources were still too far down the road.

“This is a reality,” Webb said.

In addition to assuring attendees at Thursday’s luncheon that the oil industry had vastly improved safeguards when it came to offshore drilling, Webb also maintained that the military did not really need the eastern Gulf kept clear of drilling for training exercises. He described the concept of the military mission line as “one of the misnomers going around in this community” and said it was more political than strategic.

“There are ways to cooperate,” Webb said.

Webb also played down any notion of oil companies eyeing expanded offshore energy opportunities for purely profit-driven motives.

“You can talk about the money they make—people make money in a lot of different ways—but it’s for the national good,” he said.

Webb may have more luck with his industry pitch in other states, but offshore drilling will be a tough sell in Florida. Both current Gov. Ron DeSantis and the former governor, Sen. Rick Scott, both Republicans, have voiced opposition. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Naples) has proposed legislation that would make the eastern Gulf drilling moratorium permanent, with the effort attracting bipartisan cosponsors including, locally, Rep. Matt Gaetz, (R-Fort Walton Beach).

Numerous local governments throughout Florida have also passed resolutions formalizing opposition to drilling off of Florida’s coast. The city of Pensacola and Escambia County, as well as the city of Fort Walton Beach, have all taken such stances.

“No drilling. Period,” Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson summed up his position on the issue following Explore Offshore’s local presentation.

Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill, who serves in the Navy Reserve, attended the luncheon and took to social media to express his feelings afterward.

“I couldn’t even stay through the entire pitch,” Underhill wrote on Facebook. “Star power does not change the fact—offshore drilling in the panhandle is not acceptable.”

The Florida-Alabama coastal organizer for Healthy Gulf, Christian Wagley, sent a press release after Webb’s remarks, pointing out that locals are opposed to oil and gas drilling off Florida. Healthy Gulf, an environmental group based in New Orleans and formerly known as Gulf Restoration Network, works with people, communities and businesses to oppose drilling off Florida and to create a just transition to renewable energy.

“While lobbyists from the oil and gas industry appeared in Pensacola today to build support for offshore drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, Florida residents, businesses and multiple industries and interest groups remain in strong opposition,” said Wagley.

He included in the release Mike Pinzone, a Pensacola Beach leaseholder, business owner and operator of the Gulf Pier.

“Florida creates more tourism jobs than anywhere else—we can’t afford an oil spill,” Pinzone said. “We have the best beaches in the world. As a business owner and one who loves this beach, I can’t see allowing drilling closer to our state.”

Pinzone isn’t exactly in the minority in this opposition. In November 2018, nearly 70 percent of Florida voters voted to add a provision to the state constitution that prohibits any oil and gas drilling in Florida waters. That constitutional amendment, however, only applies to state waters stretching a few miles out, while any decision regarding drilling farther out in the Gulf will be made at the federal level.