ST. PETERSBURG — It’s unlikely any presidential candidate making their way through the Sunshine State in coming months will try to lead the chant “drill baby drill” in one of the Tampa Bay area’s coastal cities as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once did.
Back in 2008, when Palin was campaigning in Clearwater for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, the prospect of safe oil exploration in Florida waters was a controversial idea but still open for debate.
After a massive spill hundreds of miles away crippled Gulf Coast tourism, even in places where not even a drop of oil washed ashore, that discussion all but ended.
Florida’s $70-billion tourism economy and the 800 miles of clean, sandy beaches that support it are far more precious than any energy resources that might be hidden in the deep, most people concluded.
Five years after a BP oil rig blew up off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and pouring hundreds of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, that view hasn’t changed — at least not in this area.
There’s currently a 200-mile federal ban on oil exploration off Florida’s Gulf Coast that will continue until 2022, and many local leaders are firm in their conviction it should remain in place long into the future.
“The oil spill rightfully tabled any consideration by those who would try to change the current 200-mile ban,” said U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores.
Had the Deepwater Horizon oil rig been 50 miles off Pinellas County’s shores, the beaches touted by some as America’s best would have been ruined, the congressman said.
“This accident occurs closer to our shore, we could have seen disastrous effects for our economy, for our environment, for our quality of life and for the health of our community,” Jolly said.
Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist remembers vividly the media reports showing a dark wall lurching across the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the early speculation that currents might spread the toxic liquid across his state’s shores.
“It’s a nightmare scenario for a state that’s so heavily dependent on tourism for our economic benefit,” said Crist, Florida’s governor at the time of the BP spill.
“It was the ultimate wake up call.”
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Monday marks the five-year anniversary of the spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
It took 87 days to cap the gush of oil that began spouting from the Deepwater Horizon rig after an explosion on April 20, 2010.
An estimated 200 million gallons quickly spread along 650 miles of Gulf shoreline, infiltrating estuaries, killing birds and sending tar balls onto shores as far off as the Florida Panhandle.
The fact oil had not washed up on Pinellas beaches didn’t sink in with many would-be visitors, especially those from overseas, and the area’s robust tourism economy took a big hit for months, worsening an already depressed season at the height of the economic recession.
“They just thought the oil was all over the Gulf of Mexico,” said Tony Satterfield, vice president of operations at Alden Suites hotel in St. Pete Beach and a member of the Pinellas Tourist Development Council.
The county’s tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and others went to lengths to get out the message that local beaches were clean. But it took a long time for the traveling public to get past a barrage of media images depicting white sand beaches stained brown or coastal mangroves caked in black.
The local travel industry was united against drilling near Florida’s precious beaches even before the spill, and the economic and environmental effects of the catastrophe solidified most of the broader community against the idea.
“Let’s put it this way: It hasn’t come up since,” Satterfield said.
“Let’s hope that drilling offshore is a dead issue.”
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BP so far has paid $1.2 billion in claims to Florida businesses that could show a clear loss from the spill, ranging from mom-and-pop motels to commercial fishing outfits to even non-coastal shops that suffered when out of state visitors cancelled their vacations.
Nearly 12,500 businesses and individuals in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties have filed claims as part of a massive settlement and more are expected to come with an extended claim deadline that ends June 8, said Tom Young, a Tampa lawyer with a focus on BP claims.
When all the claims have been evaluated, they might total $12 billion or even $15 billion, Young said.
A recent Harvard University study showed that in terms of sheer job losses, Florida’s central west coast was hit worse than any other part of the Gulf, shedding some 50,000 jobs following the spill with no temporary economic boost from the mass of cleanup crews that flocked to Louisiana and other states following the incident, Young said.
One silver lining for the Tampa Bay area’s economy is the millions of dollars in research funds that have flowed into the University of South Florida and other St. Petersburg-based institutes specializing in Gulf marine studies.
Researchers from USF’s College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg were among the first on the scene of the oil spill and have led ongoing studies focused on its lingering effect on water quality and aquatic life across the region.
A portion of the billions of dollars in penalties BP is required to pay for environmental damages has gone toward bolstering research at USF, making it a state leader in the field.
USF researchers such as Steve Murawski continue to make trips to sample underwater sediment and fish species and they still are finding traces of oil in the mud, mixed in with a “dirty blizzard” of sand, plankton and other materials.
“It does appear to be toxic to a lot of the marine life that the “snow” basically covered up,” he said.
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Murawski’s team also is investigating whether BP’s use of chemical solvents called dispersants really was beneficial in breaking up the oil and mitigating its harm to the environment.
“Right now, if we have another blowout like this, the oil industry wants to use dispersants at the wellhead to try to keep oil from surfacing,” he said. “At this point we think the jury is still out on this.”
While the industry and federal regulators have made strides in increasing safety technology and procedures at offshore rigs, Murawski says the endeavor always will involve a high level of risk.
“This is an enormously risk-prone type of industry. It’s very difficult to work in an environment like that,” he said.
“Lots of things can happen in deep-water drilling.”
That’s why U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and a group of environmental leaders gathered in St. Petersburg on Friday to reaffirm their commitment to keep drilling as far away from Florida’s shores as possible.
Just six years ago, organizers such as the American Petroleum Institute were pushing for Florida to relax regulations on offshore drilling, arguing the state wasn’t contributing its fair share to the nation’s energy needs, said Phil Compton from the St. Petersburg office of the Sierra Club.
The profits they might gain aren’t as attractive as they were back in those days, with the price of a barrel of crude cut in half since 2010 and new technologies like electric vehicles hitting the market, but the debate over searching for underwater wells hasn’t disappeared, he said.
Last month, St. Augustine residents hit the streets to protest a decision by the Obama administration to allow the use of seismic air guns in the Atlantic Ocean for oil and gas exploration.
“Floridians are united. We don’t need any drilling near our beaches,” Compton said.
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In the short-term, the BP disaster has quieted the voices of drilling advocates in Florida, but that could change, Castor said.
“I really hope that after the BP disaster folks have learned a lesson. I do not hear as much advocacy for drilling off the coast of Florida, but remember where we were. They said it was safe, that there had been no accidents, which wasn’t true. Never underestimate the power of special interests to try to overwhelm what’s right,” she said.
While the state and local tourism economy has rebounded to record levels in the past two years and there are few signs of environment damage in the Tampa Bay area associated with the spill, Castor called for continued vigilance.
“Florida’s economy and lifeblood is a healthy Gulf of Mexico. Environmental health is directly linked to the economic health of our community.”
Jolly agreed and said there is a strong degree of bipartisan opposition to drilling off Florida’s coast, but he predicted there may well be a battle – even among the state’s political leaders – when the ban in the Gulf expires in seven years.
“When this ban comes up,” he said, “there will be a fight.”
Even though memories of the tragedy remain fresh, Crist said even now there are interests that would like to see support for the drilling ban erode with time in Florida.
“The drive for the almighty dollar continues to exist,” he said. “But my hope and prayer is that it’s [drilling] never entertained in Florida again.”