House May Vote Monday on Offshore Drilling Bill; Backers See a Boon for State's Economy; Critics See Environmental Risk

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Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE

TALLAHASSEE - The House cleared the way Friday for a vote on offshore drilling, setting up a potential showdown with the Senate over how the state produces energy.

Supporters and business groups have hailed the offshore drilling bill, calling it a boon to the state's economy and a way to help wean the nation off its addiction to foreign oil. Environmentalists and other opponents, though, say it's a risky proposition that could end up fouling state waters and endangering the lucrative tourism industry.

The measure, which would authorize the Cabinet to sell drilling rights within 10 miles of the state's coast - but at least 3 miles away - cleared the final procedural hurdle for a House vote as soon as Monday.

"This is the right policy for Florida," said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida. 'With modern technology, we can explore our state's oil and gas resources in a way that protects our environment, boosts our economy and contributes to our national security."

Supporters also argue that, with directional drilling techniques, Cuba and its allies could find a way to drill in waters close to Florida if the state or federal governments don't.

But opponents say the measure is too big a risk to take in a state where coastal treasures draw millions of visitors a year.

"This controversial near-shore drilling bill puts Florida's billion dollar tourism, fishery, and marina-related industries at serious risk, and is not in the best interest of Florida," said Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat. "What Florida should do is look for ways to make our state the leader in the new energy economy, instead of making our state even more vulnerable. …