Sen. Bill Nelson took to the Senate floor Wednesday to launch a fierce assault against a legislative initiative to expand offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by providing states huge financial incentives to increase energy exploration.
Displaying a large map of the gulf, Nelson accused Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, of offering a “secret amendment” to a broad energy bill that would boost revenue-sharing for states that allow offshore oil and natural gas production.
The amendment would provide $1.5 billion over 15 years to Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama for increased energy production. It would also create new revenue-sharing streams for Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alaska.
“Off of Louisiana there are not many beaches,” Nelson said. “Off of Mississippi there are not many beaches. Off of Alabama — not many beaches. But what do you think Florida is known for? Its pristine beaches all the way from the Perdido River, which is the Florida-Alabama line, all the way down the coast, all the way to Naples and then not only to the Keys, but up the East Coast of Florida.”
In an email, Cassidy’s staff denied that the amendment Nelson was attacking would have any impact on Florida.
But a separate measure that Cassidy introduced in May, the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act, would slice the area where drilling is prohibited off Florida’s coast from its current 125 miles to 50 miles. That measure, which is cosponsored by Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and John Cornyn of Texas, has yet to be acted on by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but it may have been Nelson’s true target.
Nelson noted that he and then-Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, pushed through Congress in 2006 a ban on drilling off Florida’s coasts until 2022.
But under an Obama administration move in July 2014 to open up more of the Atlantic coast to drilling, energy companies are preparing to apply for drilling leases starting in 2018.
Nelson said the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began April 10, 2010, should remind Floridians of the threat expanded drilling would pose to the state’s $72 billion tourism industry.
Nelson recalled that some of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled off the Louisiana coastline reached parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast, including Pensacola Beach and Panama City Beach. He said news reports and pictures from those areas stopped tourists from coming to the Sunshine State.
“When the people of America saw those white, sugary sand beaches black from oil, they assumed that had happened to the entire coast of Florida, and as a result, people didn’t come — for one whole (tourist) season.”
Nelson also portrayed the potential for expanded drilling as a threat to national security. He said the Pentagon depends on training pilots for F-22 and F-35 fighter jets at Tyndall Air Force near Panama City and at Eglin Air Force Base across Choctawhatchee Bay from Destin.
“You talk to any admiral or general, and they will tell you you cannot have oil-related activities when we are testing some of our most sophisticated weapons,” Nelson said. “This is a national asset, and it is key to our national defense.”
In July 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management reopened the Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil exploration that uses sonic cannons while conducting seismic surveys to locate deep-water energy reserves.
Environmentalists in Florida and elsewhere say the sonic cannons harm whales, dolphins, turtles and other marine life by blasting sound waves 100 times louder than a jet engine into the water depths.
The American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the U.S. oil industry, says allowing oil rigs closer to Florida’s coast would create 85,000 jobs in Florida over two decades and pump $6.5 billion into the state’s economy, figures that drilling opponents assert are inflated.
The push to increase offshore drilling off Florida has divided prominent Republicans in the state.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate who had an unexpectedly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses Monday, finishing in third place, has declined to cosponsor a bill Nelson introduced last May that would require the no-drill zone off Florida’s Gulf Coast to remain at 125 miles.
A Rubio spokeswoman, Brooke Sammon, said then that he “supports developing our domestic energy resources responsibly and effectively, including offshore drilling and oil exploration.”
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, also seeking the White House, has appeared more open to expanded drilling than he was as governor, when he opposed such initiatives.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose