We must protect Florida’s future from offshore drilling

By U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist

I was governor of Florida when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010.

Over the next three months, more than 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico.

I remember the tar balls that washed up along Florida’s pristine beaches, the marine life covered in toxic sludge, the near-collapse of our fisheries and tourism industry, and the tragic loss of life aboard the Deepwater Horizon. But most of all, I remember the looks on the faces of my fellow Floridians living through the horrific consequences of this entirely preventable disaster.

I haven’t forgotten. Neither has our state. Which is why Floridians were deeply troubled when the Trump administration proposed opening more than 90 percent of our oceans to offshore drilling.

The public outcry was swift and fierce, forcing the administration to walk back the decision for Florida. Or did they?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he took Florida "off the table." But at a congressional hearing last week, Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore drilling, openly admitted that Florida is still included in the Draft National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. Cruickshank said the waters around Florida "are still part of the analysis until the secretary gives us an official decision otherwise."

The administration has also left the door open to seismic testing around Florida. Why would the Interior Department conduct seismic tests for oil and gas deposits if drilling is truly "off the table"?

Let’s not forget that BP’s Deepwater Horizon was technically located off the coast of Louisiana. If offshore drilling along other Gulf Coast states is expanded, how close to Florida’s coast will it be allowed? The current buffer is 125 miles. There are indications that restriction might be lowered to 100 miles, or even as close as 50 miles. And if drilling is allowed off the coast of Alabama, it could be as close as 20 miles — all of which would be unacceptable.

The bottom line: We must remain vigilant. Despite Zinke’s words, Florida remains in the draft oil and gas plan — and it is unclear when or how that will change.

To permanently ban oil and gas exploration and drilling off the coast of Florida, action is needed at both the state and federal levels.

The Florida Legislature and governor should revisit a constitutional amendment to ban drilling off Florida, as I proposed as governor after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. In Congress, we need to pass legislation introduced by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Sen. Bill Nelson to permanently ban drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Straits of Florida and along our Atlantic coast.

Offshore drilling is a threat to our beaches, coastal communities, tourism, national security and economy. The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster couldn’t be a starker reminder. Nearly eight years later, the Gulf of Mexico is still recovering, the cost continues to rise, and the full extent of the damage — both to our environment and our economy — is unknown.

While Zinke’s words will hopefully move us in the right direction, we must continue pressing for an end to all offshore drilling. Florida’s future depends on it.

To view the original op-ed published by the Tampa Bay Times, click here.

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