By Robert F. Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Should Florida lease some of its offshore property to let petroleum companies drill for oil and natural gas? That’s an issue likely to confront the Florida Legislature’s 2010 session – and it was also the topic of a recent debate that I emceed.The pro-drilling side was represented by Dave Mica, longtime Executive Director of the Florida Petroleum Council. The anti-drilling side was represented by Eric Draper, the Policy Director for the Florida chapter of the National Audubon Society. Although the two debaters were quite passionate in support of their respective positions, the debate – sponsored by Capital Conservatives — was commendably civil in tone.To me, the crux of the issue had to do with risk assessment. Mr. Draper conceded that the petroleum industry has improved its technology, but he nonetheless asserted that allowing drilling to occur so close to shore would still pose an unacceptable risk to Florida’s valuable tourist industry. Mr. Draper noted that more Florida visitors come to the state for its beaches than for its theme parks.Mr. Mica candidly conceded that there are, indeed, risks in this kind of undertaking as in almost any other – and not only in drilling but also in the transporting of the oil from other producers, including such politically unstable sources as the Middle East, Nigeria, and Venezuela. However, Mr. Mica also credibly asserted that these risks are minimal and that some of the problems cited by Mr. Draper – e.g. “tar balls” on Texas beaches – were more likely the result of the natural seepage from undersea oil deposits than from any leak related to drilling in that region.The risk posited by Mr. Draper is that a horrific oil spill could severely damage Florida’s tourism, thereby causing an economic cost that would outweigh the economic benefits that drilling’s advocates foresee. Those economic benefits include onshore jobs related to sending provisions to the drilling platforms and a boost in state revenue – initially from the leasing, subsequently from royalties as the wells begin production.In the end, I found Mr. Mica’s position preferable and believe Florida ought to allow drilling in its state waters between three miles and 10 miles from shore. On the other hand, I also found Mr. Draper’s concerns a valid reason to ensure that when and if drilling ever does occur in these locations, it must be done in such a way to safeguard Florida’s shores to the maximum extent possible.What do you think? Feel free to post comments—we welcome your thoughts.For a detailed analysis of energy issues, read our September 2009 study   “A Cost-Effective Bridge to Florida’s Energy Future” by JMI Adjunct Scholar James Taylor.