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Florida group pushes for oil drilling in Gulf

As gas prices continue to rise again this summer, efforts to lift Florida’s 20-year ban on offshore oil drilling are advancing in Tallahassee, in the U.S. Senate in Washington and at the grassroots level all around Florida.

A group of activists organized under the name FloridaOil.org have launched a petition drive to place the issue of offshore oil drilling before voters in 2010. The group plans to ask Florida voters to lift the state ban and clear the way for a new offshore drilling industry in Florida. “The people have spoken loud and clear; they support this,” said Don Baldauf of Bradenton, head of the growing FloridaOil.org group, which has members and volunteers in at least 10 Florida counties.

Congress is currently debating opening the Gulf of Mexico to expanded drilling. A U.S. Senate committee voted 13-10 in early June to permit the oil industry to set up rigs 45 miles off Florida’s Gulf coast and as close as 10 miles to the Panhandle shoreline.

On June 8 the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee adopted an amendment (that would lift a ban on drilling within 125 miles from Pensacola shores and 300 miles of Naples) to a bill that must pass this session.

The amendment proposes an average 45-mile buffer zone that shrinks as it nears the Panhandle and the “Destin Dome,” which is said to contain 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or enough to heat 2 million homes for 15 years.

However, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has vowed to use everything in his power to block the bill when it reaches the Senate floor, if it contains the oil drilling amendment. Nelson vowed to tie his chamber in knots to stop the federal energy bill. “The oil boys have overdone it,” Nelson said. “I will use every parliamentary tool available to me to grind the Senate to a halt if I have to.”

Nelson even took his anti-drilling campaign public, appearing in Tampa, Tallahassee Panama City and Pensacola with charts and photos arguing against the plan. “I don’t think Florida should have to trash its coastline and its $65 billion economy just so big oil can increase its profit margin,” Nelson said in an e-mailed statement. Nelson also argues that drilling will impact national security – claiming that much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico is the last remaining training range for military pilots.

While elected officials in Washington and Tallahassee debate opening the Gulf of Mexico to expanded drilling, FloridaOil.org continues its push to have Florida voters decide the issue through a constitutional amendment that would allow drilling within 10 to 125 miles of the Florida coastline.

On June 8 FloridaOil.org Chairman Don Baldauf announced the first step in introducing the constitutional amendment for the 2010 ballot with the release of information regarding legal precedents allowing a state sovereignty over its coastal waters.

“In passing the Submerged Lands Act, Congress sought to return the title to submerged lands to the states and promote the exploration and development of petroleum deposits in coastal waters,” said Baldauf.

The group, which includes Pace Allen, the former chairman of the Tallahassee Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, believes the 1953 U.S. Submerged Lands Act is the key to accomplishing its goal to allow drilling off Florida’s coast.

The law set the boundaries for federal water, but it also appears to say that any state that chooses to change them with a constitutional provision or a new law “is hereby approved and confirmed...that its boundaries extend beyond that line.”

Allen, one of the group’s founding members, says the plan could generate at least $1.5 billion in new state revenue every year. To make the 2010 ballot, the group has to collect nearly 700,000 signatures by Feb. 1, 2010. The group has formed a “527” (nonprofit organization that can accept unlimited contributions) “Floridians want to access this oil out in the Gulf,” said Allen of Florida Oil.org “This would help with our energy crisis, get America back toward energy independence, and it’s a national security issue.”

Bill VanDercreek, a professor emeritus from the Florida State University College of Law and a maritime attorney who represented legendary treasure hunter Mel Fisher, said the sponsors may have a point, but cautioned that he has not done enough research to draw a solid conclusion. “It appears to open the door,” VanDercreek said. “Whether that would mean anything without federal approval, I don’t know.”

Environmentalists warn bringing offshore drilling to Florida could harm beaches and the state’s economy and are organizing to fight the proposals on both fronts – in Florida and in Washington.

Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, said drilling will not pose a threat to Florida-based military operations and blasted Nelson for being in league with what his polls show to be the, “7 percent of radical, left-wing environmentalists who are opposed to all offshore drilling.” “There is no national security issue in Florida waters,” Bishop said. “The jets don’t bomb and strafe within 10 miles, so that’s a red herring.”

Further from shore, in U.S. waters, drilling will also not hamper military operations, Bishop said, because derricks and rigs are only required for the first few weeks. Once a well is producing, all operations are submerged, he said. AIF was a chief supporter of a last-minute push this spring in the Florida Legislature to lift the state’s drilling ban and allow the governor and Cabinet to approve leases as close as three miles from shore.