Fla. tourism grapples with offshore drilling issue

Published 3:30 am Sunday, October 5, 2008

As tourism industry leaders from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle met Thursday for a summit on offshore drilling, David Mattiford cleaned his fishing charter boat on the Destin Docks nearby and explained why he would welcome the oil companies.

Oil platforms could provide perfect cover for attracting schools of fish, oil spills are easily contained with today’s technology and — Mattiford argued — charter boat operators cannot keep paying $1,200 each time they fill their boats with gas.

For many Floridians, the question isn’t so simple: while tourism is the state’s top industry and relies largely on motorists hit hard by soaring gas prices, many fear the possibility of damage to the famous state’s beaches if more offshore drilling is allowed.

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Despite months of national debate about offshore drilling, The Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus has yet to take an official stance. Drilling advocates and anti-drilling environmentalists addressed the association’s members Thursday at the summit they organized on the issue.

Congress allowed a 26-year-old moratorium on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to expire last month. But the waters off Florida’s western beaches remain off limits to energy development, at least until 2022. That’s because of a law Congress passed two years ago that opened 8.3 million acres of the east-central Gulf near the eastern Panhandle to drilling in exchange for the no-drill zone.

Some in Congress are pushing to eliminate the no-drill zone. Earlier this year, Gov. Charlie Crist reversed his long-standing opposition to offshore drilling.

Paul Catoe, president of the Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, said the group may have waited too long to have much say in decisions by oil companies, politicians and a public that has increasingly favored drilling.

“The president, the governor, Congress and everybody has let the sun set on the issues surrounding drilling,” Catoe said, referring to the moratorium that was allowed to expire in September.

Rick Tyler, a spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future — the tax-exempt political arm of Gingrich’s lucrative business as a writer, pundit and consultant — told the tourism leaders that expanded offshore drilling is both safe and necessary.

Tyler estimated the oil business could reap $7 billion a year for the state.

“When you start talking about all the competing needs in Tallahassee and then someone offers $7 billion a year, I think you would start some interesting conversations,” he said.

Environmentalist Enid Sisskin, of the nonprofit Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, said the potential for trouble from oil spills, lost wetlands, threats to wildlife and pollution from drilling had to be factored in.

“Tourism in Florida is a $90 million to $100 million a day industry and tourism is all about perception, perception of sugary white beaches, emerald waters and a clean environment,” she said.

Instead of promoting drilling and furthering a natural cultural of energy consumption, she said the state should promote alternative energies and energy independence. And Americans should exhaust foreign sources of oil before exploiting any untapped reserves off the Florida coast and elsewhere, she said.

Hotel and business owners in Key West are closely following the offshore drilling debate and are heavily opposed to expanded drilling, said Harold Wheeler, director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

“There could be a financial gain to the state, but what is the risk of a spill, a cleanup and the negative economic impact of that?” he asked.

Tracy Louthain, spokeswoman for The Beaches of South Walton, said many Panhandle tourism leaders haven’t decided whether they support drilling.

“We will take this information back to our business, to our communities, do our homework and make some decisions,” she said.

The Panhandle is somewhat different from the rest Florida because it is closer to other Gulf Coast states including Alabama and Louisiana where offshore drilling is common, she said.

“People here have different attitudes,” she said.

At the Destin Docks, charter boat captain Stan Phillips said the drilling issue was a bit of a dilemma.

“The beaches out here, the beaches are the money,” he said. “But as long as they can drill where nobody can see it, where it’s far enough out, I don’t have a problem with it.”