Chamber, legislators stand firm on Gulf oil-drilling ban

© OCEANA / Juan Cuetos

Citrus County Chronicle, 10/25/2018

By: Michael D. Bates

Citrus County Chamber of Commerce President Josh Wooten remembers 2010 very well: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 11 men on a drilling rig and spewed about 134 million gallons of oil into waters off Louisiana.

Citrus County was spared the worst of the fallout from the spill, but the disaster made headlines far enough away that tourists shunned Florida, fearing all the state’s waters were contaminated with black goo.

Citrus County officials redoubled marketing efforts to assure tourists that businesses were open and the waters here were fine.

“Just the thought of oil coming on to our beaches affects our economy,” Wooten said.

So it’s no wonder Wooten is opposed to rumblings that President Donald Trump’s administration could lift a federal oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that went into effect following the Deepwater incident and is set to expire in 2022.

Wooten said he is encouraged that Citrus County’s legislators — state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, state Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, and U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden — oppose oil drilling off Florida’s coast and support extending the moratorium.

“Our delegation is strongly opposed,” Wooten said. “For Florida, it would be devastating.”

The problem, Wooten said, is that there are 435 members of Congress and many support lifting the moratorium.

“The vast majority of them are not affected by drilling in the Gulf,” Wooten said.

The Citrus County Chamber of Commerce recently passed a resolution opposing relaxation of offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and has joined with a coalition of other area chambers and business groups to strengthen that stance.

And the local chamber joined the Florida Gulf Coast Business Coalition (FGCBC), which opposes lifting the moratorium.

The risk is too great that a major oil spill would do untold damage to marine life, tourism and businesses, Wooten said.

The moratorium prevents oil drilling within 125 miles of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

On Nov. 6, people will vote on Amendment 9, which would ban oil drilling in state waters and ban vaping from electronic devices in the same indoor workplaces where smoking is now prohibited.

The pairing of these two initiatives for environmental reasons has led to head-scratching among some, and Wooten acknowledged that it might hurt the amendment’s chances.

Webster is in favor of extending the eastern Gulf moratorium before it expires in 2022, but does not  support Amendment 9 because he believes the policies proposed do not belong in the Florida Constitution.

That amendment, should it pass, would ban drilling within the first 9 miles off Florida’s coastlines, Webster said. Oil companies have not proposed coming any closer than 25 miles anyway, he said.

“If (this amendment) actually did something, I could probably be for it,” Webster said. “But in this particular case, it doesn’t do anything.”

Hunter Miller, who, along with Loryn Baughman, works at the Washington D.C.-based Oceana advocacy group, met with the Chronicle Editorial Board on Wednesday and stressed that the lifting of the moratorium would adversely affect tourism, which he called Citrus County’s “bread and butter.”

Miller said the Trump administration has also discussed removing third-party monitoring of oil and gas operations and allowing them to self-report.

That, said Miller, is analogous to the wolf guarding the hen house.

“Third-party inspections and monitoring is the least we can do,” said Miller said.

Miller and Baughman are visiting with municipalities along Florida’s west coast to stress the importance of keeping the stricter oil drilling regulations in place given federal attempts to make what they called backroom deals to remove the eastern Gulf drilling moratorium.

“We’ve got to stay strong and hold the line and don’t make any deals,” Miller said.

The National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore drilling industry trade group, praised Trump’s proposed relaxing of safety regulations.

“The revisions develop a rule that reduces unnecessary burdens placed on industry, while still maintaining world-class safety and environmental protections,” NOIA President Randall Luthi said in a statement. “We have a rule that is not a safety rollback, but instead incorporates modern technological advances.”

But FGCBC Chairman Robin Miller said the Deepwater oil spill resulted in the loss of 10 million user-days of beach, fishing and boating activity, and the impact of the oil spill on fisheries could total $8.7 billion by 2020.

“We will not allow additional offshore drilling to threaten our businesses and the healthy coasts that they rely on,” said Miller, also president/CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.

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