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Nelson, Rooney keen to keep oil rigs away from Florida coast
January 12, 2018

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The beaches of Aruba: crystal clear water, bright pink flamingos and offshore oil rigs in the distance.

Fort Myers Beach resident Megan Zelenak took a vacation to the tropical paradise in 2017, and doesn't want to see Lee County's beaches plagued with the same machinery.

"It was striking to be in a spot that was so beautiful with a stark contrast of all this happening around you," she said. "You could stand there on the beach and you saw (rigs) off in the distance. You could smell it."

Florida was recently slated to be opened back up for offshore drilling, but political moves may prevent that from happening.

Two Florida legislators are taking action to ensure the horizons of the Gulf coast of Florida stay offshore-oil rig free.

Senator Bill Nelson (D) and District 19 Representative Francis Rooney (R.) have both filed bills that would protect the coast from offshore drilling.

These moves come within short succession of a series of decisions by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The Trump administration announced plans in early January to roll back Obama-era regulations on off-shore drilling and to re-open many federal waters for drilling, according to Nelson's press release. Zinke published the plan, which included Florida, on Jan. 8. A day later he announced Florida would be "off the table."

Nelson promptly filed bill S.2292 that would ban offshore drilling - and it's not his first go-round fighting the controversial industry. In 2006, former senator Mel Martinez and Nelson co-sponsored a bill to ban drilling through 2022.

Zinke met with Governor Rick Scott before changing his mind about Florida. On Twitter, Nelson called the exchange "a political stunt."

"We still don't know what Sec. Zinke really means when he said offshore drilling was 'off the table' for Florida," Nelson's Tweet from Thursday reads.

Nelson's new bill in the Senate is echoed in the House: Rooney introduced H.R. 4770, Protecting and Securing Florida's Coastline Act, Thursday.

Rooney said he wasn't aware Nelson was also introducing legislation.

"Hopefully the House will pass my bill whether it's my bill or his bill or anybody's bill, we have to keep offshore drilling out of the Gulf," he said.

H.R. 4770 asks for "just what we need" Rooney says, hoping that a narrow request specific to the eastern Gulf coast will garner more support than a complex one.

Rooney knows his way around the oil business, having served on the board of land and offshore drilling firm Helmerich & Payne, Inc., for years.

Bringing drilling to the coasts of Florida would present two "huge" risks, Rooney said: human error such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill out in the Gulf, and pipelines to shore that could also leak and spill.

The offshore industry would require onshore support in the form of tank farms, supply vessels, barges, and more, he said.

"Those things are incompatible with residential development and tourism economy in southwest Florida," Rooney said.

Besides the environmental concerns, offshore drilling would have an adverse affect on Florida's military bases, which use the Gulf for testing and training missions.

In a statement Rooney expressed his gratitude for Scott and Zinke "carving Florida out of the Administration's updated drilling plan," but in an interview he in-part agreed with Nelson's statement that the Florida's "off the table" status isn't defined, yet.

"I don't think we totally know yet what it means," he said. "We don't know if that includes stopping seismic testing - why would you need that if you're not going to do drilling? At the end of the day, a law needs to be passed (to ban it)."

District 3 Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker's view on offshore drilling is a simple one: No.

"Please don't do it. Please don't even consider it," Kiker said.

All he needed for affirmation was the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Spill - "That should be plain-enough evidence for anybody."

The 2010 spill occurred many miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, dealing a serious blow to Florida tourism economy in its aftermath. Then-governor Charlie Crist launched an economic recovery fund to help businesses in tourism and hospitality pay for marketing to attract tourists to the state with BP ultimately paying out an $18.7 billion settlement to help mitigate "quantified impacts." Five Gulf Coast states, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas received damages: $6.8 billion was earmarked for Louisiana, $3.25 billion for Florida, $2.3 billion for Alabama, $2.2 billion for Mississippi and $750 million Texas. Another $5.5 billion was levied in Clean Water Act penalties.

Even though Lee County didn't have oil wash up on its beaches, it filed an initial claim for $70 million for qualified losses such as a decrease in gas tax revenues, bed tax money, sales tax revenues as well as loss in revenue due to lower attendance at county facilities. The Lee County School District and the city of Sanibel, also filed claims, receiving $5.24 million, $2.5 million and $460,000, respectively.

Neither Fort Myers Beach nor the city of Cape Coral filed claims

"Deepwater Horizons didn't even hit us, but we suffered the consequences," Kiker said. "(With offshore drilling) We'd be bringing on the possibility of a disaster we can't recover from."

Zelenak, a former Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce employee and an employee at the Sea Gypsy Inn, doesn't want to see the risks posed to tourism from the endeavor which has serious consequences if something should go wrong. While she was at the Chamber, she was already getting negative feedback from tourists about the state of the water, she said.

"I can't even imagine what it would be like with adding offshore drilling," Zelenak said. "It's much more poignant to us because we're already facing water issues. In Louisiana, it had a huge impact there. It's scary to think that could be the future for any of our coastal areas."

Eric Berglund, president of the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance, echoed Kiker's opinion.

Someone could make the argument that drilling could bring a job boom, but Berglund said that would be an unlikely outcome in Southwest Florida.

Shallow coastal waters coupled with a lack of infrastructure would make the Lee County area a hard sell even if drilling were permitted. There's no large port, like Tampa, and no maintenance or repair facilities, he said.

"Since it's not an industry that been here off our shores, it would essentially be a start-up here," Berglund said.

And, like Kiker, Berglund envisioned the blow another spill could have to the local economy if drilling were permitted.

"We already have Lake Okeechobee and what that does to our beaches, I don't think anyone would want to add drilling to the mix," he said.

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