Sen. Nelson fighting offshore drilling
A U.S. senator is fending off threats that could open up the eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling.
Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, told some local leaders Tuesday that he's hoping to extend protections that now prohibit drilling offshore of Southwest Florida from 2022 to 2027.
He said the Gulf of Mexico doesn't need another BP oil spill.
"The actual spill itself, when the wind shifted and started taking east, it got to Pensacola beach, blackened the sugary white sand beaches and those photographs went all over the world," said Nelson, speaking at the Page Field airport in Fort Myers. "So all the rest of Florida's Gulf coast, all the way to Marco Island, didn't get it. But what did happen is a whole season was lost because our visitors did not come because they thought there was oil on our beaches and oil in the water."
The oil industry has pushed lawmakers from other states, Nelson said, to challenge the ban that keeps rigs out of this section of the Gulf. He fears another senator will soon push to have the ban overturned.
Nelson and others have contended that there is only a small amount of oil to be had off the Southwest Florida coast. In the end, Nelson said, those wanting to open up the area to drilling simply want to lease those rights out to other companies, or increase the company's value by adding to its list of acquisitions.
"Even though a potential oil lease gives value to an oil company as an asset, in reality the oil is where the sediments came down the Mississippi River for millions of years and that (oil) is primarily off Louisiana," Nelson said.
Nelson said his ace in the hole is that the Gulf of Mexico is used extensively to train some of the nation's top military pilots.
"The clincher that I've been able to use to fight them off is that this area in the Gulf of Mexico off of Florida is the largest testing and training area for the United States military in the world," he said. "I would hope at that point we'd have all the support of the generals, and the admirals and the secretary of defense."
Nelson spoke to a receptive crowd.
"Our estuaries are so delicate and sensitive, and they're the drivers of our economy," said Jennifer Hecker, with the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program. "And we can't afford to put anymore stress on them right now. We're really working hard to restore them and we're investing millions and millions of dollars to plant sea grasses and rebuild oyster bars. We can't risk anything that could undermine the progress we've been able to make."
Kevin Ruane, mayor of Sanibel, said Southwest Florida's economy relies on clean water.
"The economy is really what it's about. People lose track of the environment," he said. "But when you talk about the economy it seems to have resonance with the Senate and the House — conversations about jobs and the trickle down effect."
Ruane added: "We've done resolutions and we'll do whatever we can to assist you."
Karen Dwyer, an environmentalist with the Stone Crab Alliance, said protecting Florida's waters should be everyone's priority.
"Water is Florida's No. 1 natural resource, fueling everything from agriculture to our multibillion dollar tourism industry," she said. "I'm glad the senator is watching this to make sure that our protections don't get rolled back. We don't need another BP oil spill in our Gulf because we're still suffering the ill effects."
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