Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Spill Lifts Issue of Fla. Drilling to the Surface; Opponents of Offshore Drilling Are Pressing Gov. Charlie Crist to Aim to Pass an Amendment Banning It

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Spill Lifts Issue of Fla. Drilling to the Surface; Opponents of Offshore Drilling Are Pressing Gov. Charlie Crist to Aim to Pass an Amendment Banning It

Article excerpt

Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE

TALLAHASSEE - The oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico has turned a political tide in Florida, wiping out the majority support offshore drilling once enjoyed and presenting opponents an opening to strengthen the ban on drilling in state waters.

The debate over oil exploration off Florida's coastline has been turned inside out, with the most prominent legislative supporters of drilling scuttling their plans while opponents pressure Gov. Charlie Crist to call a special session with the aim of passing a constitutional amendment banning the practice.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, support for offshore drilling among voters was at 48 percent in Florida, down 11 points from less than two years ago, according to the polling firm Rasmussen Reports. The telephone survey, taken May 3 and with a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points, showed 35 percent of Floridians opposed to drilling and 16 percent undecided.

In the 2008 election, 59 percent of voters favored the idea, according to Rasmussen. A Quinnipiac University poll in April of this year showed 64 percent of voters supported drilling off Florida's shore.

"We're seeing a sea change in public opinion the likes of which only happens after a catastrophe," said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, an organization that opposes offshore drilling.

Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Winter Park Republican who has pressed offshore exploration for two years, has now ruled it out.

"Rep. Cannon has made it clear that oil drilling will not be on the table when he is speaker," said spokeswoman Erin VanSickle.

The oil industry, meanwhile, has largely shied away from openly discussing the politics of the spill.

"Our focus right now is on response," said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council. "I don't know how you can really gauge any legislative issue seven days after the Legislature has adjourned."

Offshore drilling opponents, sensing an opportunity after two years of fighting to keep drilling from happening, have now begun to play offense. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, and several lawmakers are pushing Crist to either call a special session to address the spill or include drilling on the agenda if he summons lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a meeting on public corruption, as he is widely expected to do.

Sink and Democrats want to strengthen the state's existing ban by asking voters to write it into the constitution in the November elections. Supporters of the idea say the costs of getting drilling wrong are now clearer and the industry's arguments of drilling being safe are weaker.

"When you're in the abstract and you're being assured over and over again a spill can't happen, you tend to discount the realistic risk," said Rep. …

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