Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE
TALLAHASSEE - A battle over the future of Florida's coastline and the resources that lie just beyond is shaping up in the Legislature, as lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates on both sides mobilize for what could be one of the major fights of the coming session: whether to open state waters to offshore oil drilling.
On one side are powerful legislators and organizations that see a potential economic boom in the underwater petroleum.
On the other side are environmental groups who see the state poised to endanger its vital tourism industry and take a step backward in the changing energy industry.
"In the 27-year history of the fight to keep our coasts rig-free, we're definitely as close as we've ever been to seeing this shortsighted policy become reality," said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, which opposes offshore drilling.
Supporters say the time has come to discard Florida's once bipartisan opposition to exploring the state's waters, capitalizing on safer technology to minimize the state's dependence on hostile oil-producing nations and generate revenue that can be used to create the renewable energy sources environmentalists support.
"We have to have a bridge to get from oil and natural gas to solar and other sources of alternative energy," said Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, who sponsored an offshore drilling bill in the last legislative session.
SHIFTING PUBLIC OPINIONS
The momentum gathering behind the proposal is driven by changing public opinion and a secretive company lobbying heavily for the measure.
Supporters of offshore drilling say the public began to change its mind about the possibility of offshore drilling in summer 2008, as gas prices soared and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pressed for more exploration as a possible solution. They tout polls, like a Mason-Dixon survey this past April showing support among Florida registered voters at 59 percent.
"It's significant that now, with oil prices at a much lower rate ... public opinion is still holding fast on embracing domestic exploration and production of oil and natural gas in state waters, federal waters and so on," said Ron Sachs, whose public relations firm is representing Florida Energy Associates.
That company has emerged as a key player in the battle over offshore drilling. Its principal is M. Lance Phillips, a Texas oilman; others involved in the group include the finance co-chair for Gov. Charlie Crist's 2006 campaign and a former Walt Disney executive.
"This is a group of individuals, patriotic Americans, who are independent businesspeople in the energy industry," Sachs said.
Opponents of drilling aren't so sure, saying the group's exact dimensions and motives still aren't clear.
"That has a lot of people worried. Are they indeed U.S. interests or are they foreign interests?" said Susan Glickman, a consultant for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "I guarantee you that there's a reason they are not revealing who's funding them; there's a reason they don't want the public to know who's funding them."
Until he retired from the lobbying profession to run for the late Sen. Jim King's seat, former House Speaker John Thrasher was among those retained by Florida Energy Associates.
Glickman said that could constitute a conflict of interest.
"You shouldn't be able to be paid and then go into the body that you were lobbying and now work the deal from the inside," she said.
Thrasher, who advocates allowing the governor and Florida Cabinet to consider drilling proposals, said his involvement was no different than a lawyer who might represent clients and then go to Tallahassee as a legislator. …