TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Describing his position as evolving, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said he now supports exploratory drilling for oil and gas off Florida's coast because "Floridians are suffering.''
''When you're paying over $4 a gallon for gas, you have to wonder whether there might be additional resources to bring that price down,'' Crist said.
The governor said he ''applauds'' Republican presidential candidate John McCain for calling for a lifting of the ban on offshore oil drilling off most of the nation's coastline.
The proposal drew a quick condemnation from McCain's Democratic rival, Barack Obama, who said it would do little to affect prices.
But Crist said, ``We have to be sympathetic to the pocketbooks of the people of Florida and what they are paying at the pump for gas, and balance that with what our state might be able to contribute in terms of resources.''
He added that drilling off Florida's beaches is ``something I'd least like to do, but I also understand the economics of what's happening to our country.''
Obama's campaign put Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson on a conference call with reporters to assail McCain's proposal. Nelson said it would do nothing to lower prices, which he said are being fueled by speculation in the markets.
''For a major candidate to say his answer is to drill off the coast of the United States shows a lack of vision,'' Nelson said. ``It shows a coziness with oil companies and the Wall Street investment banks that are fueling this run up on prices.''
Congressional Republicans have aggressively pushed to open up the shoreline to gas and oil exploration, but even the GOP talking points on opening the coast to drilling acknowledge no quick fix.
A GOP press release noted that once leases are secured 'a long, comprehensive exploration process begins that `can require years of mapping, testing, drilling and construction' and can cost millions or even billions of dollars. . . . It has taken nearly a decade to produce energy on leases in the past. . . .''
Crist has said throughout his political career that he opposes drilling in Florida. He now says Florida's struggling economy is driving his changed view.
''It would all depend on the parameters,'' he said. ``How far off the coast, how safe it would be, how much it would protect our beaches.''
He rules out drilling in the Everglades, where oil companies speculate there are some oil reserves. The biggest prize in Florida is estimated to be the Destin Dome, where 39 exploratory wells drilled in the 1970s and '80s showed vast reserves of natural gas, some of it accompanied by a light, low-grade crude oil, from Pensacola to Tampa Bay.
Little is known about the extent of the oil and gas reserves off Florida's coast. The federal Minerals Management Service estimates that the reserves within the first 100 miles of Florida's coast would produce only natural gas and not oil, because the discoveries have been too deep for oil -- 20,000 feet or more -- and are under temperatures too high for oil to exist.
The National Petroleum Council estimates the eastern Gulf might hold 36.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 5.2 billion barrels of oil. Others doubt those numbers but say there is no way to know without further exploration.
Environmentalists warn, however, that Florida's multibillion-dollar tourism industry, its fisheries industries and its soaring coastal real estate market are as much at risk as the environment if drilling anywhere in the Eastern Gulf is allowed.
Federal environmental regulators acknowledge that drilling discharges harmful drilling fluids and cuttings, disturbs delicate marine life and poses a threat to endangered sea turtles.
For those and other reasons, Florida politicians from both parties have considered the endorsement of oil drilling as a ''third rail'' of political issues to be avoided. They have worked to keep the drilling ban in force along Florida shores for more than 25 years.
But Crist, by echoing McCain, has decided that economics trumps the environment this election year.
''We have to be sympathetic to the pocketbooks of the people of Florida and what they are paying at the pump for gas and balance that with what our state might be able to contribute in terms of resources,'' Crist said.
He cited recent polls that he says show ``people are much more favorably inclined to this idea so long as it's done safely, it protects our state and if that could help us lower the price of gas at the pump.''
States that allow drilling off their coasts receive a cut of the royalties from oil and gas reserves that lie close to their shoreline. The federal government collects the royalties for production in the waters beyond that.
Crist acknowledged that it could be years before any oil or gas reserves are tapped enough to lower fuel prices in Florida.
''I don't think the price of gas is necessarily going to go down for a long time,'' he said. ``I think we need at least to study it. . . . We owe it to Florida families.''
(Herald Staff Writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.)