Florida Offshore Drilling Plan Gathering Momentum

A Senate committee in Washington has approved opening the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, including an area that is rich in natural gas only 10 miles off the Florida coastline. However, a 45-mile ‘buffer zone’ would be established around the majority of the state coastline, with the 10-mile area being limited to the Florida Panhandle.

The region was originally protected from oil and gas exploration by an act of Congress back in 2006 as part of a deal with Florida to make available 8.3million acres to oil and gas development in the east-central Gulf. The protected region was to stay off limits to energy development until 2022. However, the Energy Panel has now approved a provision that would end the drilling ban across most of the eastern Gulf waters including an area known as the Destin Dome – an area 10 miles off Pensacola, Fla. and is believed to contain as much as 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The apparent turnaround has been led by Republican legislative leaders and industry backers who feel that the time is right for the exploration to begin. Political opportunity and public backing from residents who believe that the decision is beneficial to the economy of both the state and the country has prompted the issue of drilling off Florida’s coast to move back up the agenda. The main area of controversy has always been whether drilling should be allowed within eyesight of the state’s beaches – a major tourist revenue generator for the state and sacred to both environmentalists and to those whose businesses rely on the tourist industry. However it is now becoming apparent that rising prices at the gas pumps and the prospect of highly paid drilling jobs, oil rig jobs and other oil careers as well as the ability to pump billions of dollars into the state economy is swaying the naysayers in favour of offshore drilling.

The proposed legislation would prevent permanent structures being constructed and encourage the development of a ‘roadmap’ for utilities to become more dependent on renewable fuels in years to come as part of the terms and conditions of approval. Critics claim that the restrictions do not go far enough and that drilling constitutes an environmental crisis waiting to happen off the shores of Florida. But new technology introduced by a group of Texas-based oil companies promises that, after initial exploration, oil extractions would be kept underwater and out of sight, thus preserving the sanctity of the beach view over the Gulf and safeguarding the tourism industry as well. Supporters are claiming that expansion would help the state’s economy and provide a hedge against international volatility. They also believe that the Florida program will create an industry with high-tech, high-wage, high-skill jobs with the potential for an economic injection of between US$ 7-10billion for Florida. Jobs wouldn’t just be created in drilling and platform occupations – the supporters believe that the economic impact would start to take effect much sooner with the development of jobs in exploration and surveying as well as other oil jobs. In a few years time, the Sunshine State could be rivaling its neighbouring state of Texas as the oil and gas capital of the US.