Tourism Shift: Visitors Bureaus No Longer Totally Anti-Drilling

TALLAHASSEE — For years, while much of the nation called for more drilling for oil off the coast of Florida, the state’s tourism industry said no.

When gas was $4 per gallon this summer, the industry said maybe.

Now, even though Florida motorists are filling up their tanks for less than an arm, a leg or their first born, the tourism industry is saying that drilling might OK after all. But only if it can't be seen.

Just as gas prices began to recede from their high mark, the Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus held a summit with oil and gas industry officials in Destin. Against a backdrop of the Panhandle's sugar-white beaches, supporters and opponents of off-shore drilling debated its impact on the state's economy and environment.

After hearing from the Florida Petroleum Council, the drilling advocacy group American Solutions, environmental preservation group Gulf Coast Environment Defense and Shell Oil about the benefits and risks of drilling, the visitors bureaus recently decided on a compromise solution. They now favor drilling that is out-of-sight of the Florida coastline, where it can't be seen by tourists who may think it's not compatible with a nice day at the beach.

Additional caveats in the visitors bureau's new stance on drilling include requiring “zero discharge natural gas systems,” a moratorium on new leases to drill in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and deference to the needs of the military establishments in the Panhandle.

When the tourism industry opposed drilling – mostly for aesthetic reasons – that was that. Those favoring didn't have much of a chance against the state's largest industry.

Robert Skrob, executive director of the visitors bureau association, said the tourism industry's apparent change of heart on drilling was born of necessity.

“Even with the declining gas price, this summer taught us how reliant we are on foreign oil,” he said. “Our industry had to balance the need for transportation for visitors to get to Florida with the need to protect our natural beauty. Increased production of oil off our coast that is out of sight might be a part of that.”

Skrob said that the visitors bureaus would present their offshore drilling recommendations to the Legislature in the coming session, with the hopes that state lawmakers will urge Congress to reverse its position on the issue.

But Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who represents five counties along the Panhandle coast, said that unless the incoming Democratic congressional majority and White House administration reverse course on drilling too, there may not be much the Legislature can do.

“It doesn't matter what the Florida Legislature thinks about off-shore drilling,” he said. “Under current law, the state doesn't have authority over most of the areas of the Gulf that are often thought to be oil rich.”

Gaetz said that absent the financial pressures of $4 per gallon gas, a congressional reversal on drilling is unlikely.

“I don't believe President Obama and the Democratic leadership is going to have an epiphany about off-shore drilling,” Gaetz said. “The opinion of the Florida Legislature about off-shore drilling is about as relevant as the opinion of the Lutherans about the selection of the next Pope. They're not going to ask us.”

However, Gaetz said that while he would also be concerned about the effect of off-shoring drilling on the military operations of the bases in his district, he personally doesn't have “a visceral opposition” to oil exploration along the Florida coast.

“This is a dynamic issue,” he said. “In August, many proponents (of off-shore drilling) were predicting the eminent end of the world unless drilling commenced right away. The fact that the price of gas is half of what it was has tempered some of the breathless demand for drilling. But similarly, the tourism industry, which has been protective of our beaches…has said maybe energy production and tourism can co-exist. I think it can.”

Gaetz added that it may be better anyway for the Legislature to debate off-shore drilling when they are not feeling intense pressure from constituents to ease their pain at the pump.

“The worst decisions I've ever made are when I'm mad and rushed,” he said. “Now's a good time to have a thoughtful discussion, when the Legislature is not under the gun to have immediate results.”

David Mica, president of the Florida Petroleum Council, hailed the visitors bureau association's updated stance on off-shore drilling as “a major step in the right direction.”

“This is something that Floridians have embraced more and more, not just this summer, but when you had a supply disruption (caused by hurricanes) and folks took a much closer look at where the gasoline that goes into our automobiles comes from,” Mica said.

Mica praised the way the tourism industry group went about reaching the decision.

“They spent the entire day hearing the issue out,” he said. “They were pretty deliberative.”

But Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, a Bradenton-based, left-leaning non-profit organization, said the visitor's bureau recommendations were “short-sighted and naïve.”

“Anyone who cares about our beaches and marine waters should be concerned,” he said. “Out-of-sight, out-of-mind does not apply when it comes to industrial pollution.”

Ferrulo said that the 30-mile buffer called for by the visitors bureaus was not enough to protect the Florida coastline in the event of an accident.

“Just because you can't see rigs blocking our beautiful sunsets doesn't mean they're not there,” he said.

Ferrulo added that the current decline in gas prices, without new off-shore drilling, was evidence that additional drilling isn't what's needed to lower prices. He said 60 rigs were taken off-line during this year's busy hurricane season.

“The steep decline in the price of a barrel of oil is proof that we can't control the price of gas in this country,” he said. “It's dictated by events that are beyond our control.”

That is a theory that would have be disproved by any off-shore drilling proposal he fully supported, Sen. Gaetz said.

“If my opinion mattered, I would want to see the cause and effect relationship between any proposal and the price of gas,” he said.

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