Oil Industry, Hoping to Drill in the Gulf, Says It Would Enrich Florida

WASHINGTON (Sun Sentinel/TNS) -

Florida would be showered with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of tax revenue over the next two decades if the federal government would quit standing in the way of energy exploration, the oil industry claims.

The lure of jobs and money is part of a pitch to Congress to open much of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to rigs, just five years after the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A former economist for the U.S. Energy Department and even some drilling boosters say the industry’s projections of jobs and revenue are greatly inflated. But the lobbying is making headway.

The Senate energy committee on July 30 approved a bill that would shrink the no-drill buffer zone along Florida’s West Coast from 125 miles to 50 miles.

The relentless pressure to drill is mounting despite relatively low oil prices and a surge in domestic production. For long term, the industry sees a chance to gain access to deposits known to exist under the Gulf and across the southern peninsula.

“We can continue to put downward pressure on the cost of important energy resources into the future,” said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, an industry promoter in Tallahassee.

Florida would gain 183,000 jobs by 2035, and the state economy would get a $440 billion boost from 2016 to 2035 if the federal government adopted “pro-development policies,” according to a report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute lobbying organization. “Pro-development policies” would include dropping restrictions on drilling in the eastern Gulf.

The report, conducted by Wood Mackenzie, a research consultant, also projected $53 billion in Florida tax revenue from 2016 to 2035.

“I honestly think some of these industry reports are inflated by an order of magnitude 10 times greater than what’s actually there,” said Frank Alcock, a former Energy Department economist and now associate professor of political science at New College of Florida.

“This is not something that’s going to be a boon to job creation, especially for Floridians,” Alcock said. “Really, it’s just extending drilling operations eastward to get access to some lucrative wells.”

Business boosters foresee some benefit, even if it’s more limited than the industry promises.

“Our proponents generally overestimate what the number of jobs is going to be,” said Barney Bishop, former chief executive of Associated Industries of Florida and now a consultant in Tallahassee. “We generally take the rosiest view of how many jobs are going to be created. I don’t think there’s going to be thousands of jobs available for this. It could be hundreds of jobs.

“But listen, with the kind of economy we’re having, even though Florida is on track and doing well, any jobs we can bring to the marketplace are extremely important. And these are very well-paid jobs.”

Marine scientists and environmental groups remain alarmed that drilling closer to shore could cause lasting damage to sea life and its habitat, especially if it leads to a major spill.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., warned Senate leaders that if a bill squeezing Florida’s buffer zone comes to the floor, he would “use all available procedural options to block it.”

He and others fear that an oil slick in the Gulf would get caught in the Loop Current, a powerful stream that could carry the toxic mess south to marine sanctuaries in the Keys, drag it though the Florida Straits and push it north along the Gulf Stream to pollute the coral reefs and beaches of South Florida.

A streamer from the Deepwater Horizon slick in 2010 did head south on the Loop Current but was shut off by an eddy. The main mass of the slick remained north of the Loop Current and was shoved by surface winds against the northern Gulf Coast, sparing South Florida.