When the U.S. economy emerges from the shadows of COVID-19, the kickstarter is likely to be America’s abundant energy supplies. That’s because the U.S. now sits atop the world in the production of oil and natural gas. Florida, with rich deposits on both of its shores, can be a key part of that economic renaissance, enriching Floridians and catalyzing growth, but only if public officials in Washington make the right call by embracing federal offshore energy leasing, a practice now prohibited in Florida.
Using our state’s offshore energy supplies as a long-term investment for Florida’s future makes lots of sense, but not everyone is on board. In fact, the charge to block offshore leasing is being led by two of our state’s most recognized faces: Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. The pair, who I agree with on almost every other issue of importance, are part of a 27-member Florida congressional delegation that wants to omit Florida from leasing its offshore energy supplies, despite the many benefits of doing so.
In recent days, Senator Rubio announced he would attempt to add an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would implement a 10-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Senator Rubio’s gambit relies on the fact that the oil-rich Eastern Gulf of Mexico Planning Area is also home to the Joint Gulf Range Complex, a significant military installation, which has co-existed for many decades with offshore oil drilling. Senator Rubio employed the same strategy last year when he unsuccessfully introduced a bill to prohibit energy leases off Florida waters.
Misconceptions abound about offshore leasing, so it’s important to state the facts. For starters, the United States owns the land and resources beyond 3 miles off the coast of Florida, Texas, and other Gulf states due to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. In addition, the Submerged Lands Act allows state leaders to control land in Texas and Florida’s west coast up to about 10 miles offshore. But Florida officials to date have blocked leasing of energy supplies off our coast, citing concerns about the state’s robust beach tourism trade. This is simply a red herring argument as it doesn’t keep people off the beaches of Southern California, Texas, Mississippi or Alabama.
The reality, on the other hand, is that the Submerged Lands Act, with its 10-mile-plus buffer, means energy developers could access rich oil and gas deposits far from shore while having no impact whatsoever on Florida’s tourism or fishing industries. As Julio Fuentes, President and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, explains, “Development of offshore leasing and exploration will not interfere with Florida’s tourism industry as critics often claim.” Fertile deposits such as the Thunder Horse field, for example, are 125 miles or more offshore.
By embracing common sense, Florida can create not just big economic benefits, but environmental ones as well. The Department of Interior’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, the recipient of offshore lease tax revenue, has already directed more than $1 billion to Florida conservation programs in the Everglades, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges, and Big Cypress National Preserve. The money to keep protecting those important ecosystems also safeguards the nearly half a million jobs and almost $17 billion in wages and salaries that outdoor tourism and recreation support each year.
Offshore leasing would obviously help Florida’s economy, with the International Association of Drilling estimating that the 3.6 billion barrels of oil off the state’s western coast could support nearly a quarter million jobs and inject $1.8 billion into the state’s economy annually. One key study by a consultancy called Quest Offshore found that fully taking advantage of the Gulf of Mexico’s energy supplies could have quickly grown employment and GDP impacts related to the oil and natural gas industry by more than seventy percent. Offshore energy leasing in the region holds massive potential, but only if elected leaders stop throwing up roadblocks.
It remains unclear whether Senator Rubio’s latest attempt to continue mothballing Florida’s offshore energy leasing potential will gain traction, as some are concerned that an open amendment process could insert nasty partisan bickering into what has so far been a bipartisan legislative effort to pass the National Defense Authorization Act. What is clear is that Florida lawmakers continue to squander a golden opportunity to enhance Florida’s and America’s national security interests by refusing to give offshore leasing the serious analysis and debate it deserves.
Florida can help lead the U.S. in economic resurgence following COVID-19 and it can do that by turning rich offshore energy supplies into opportunities. It’s time Florida’s federal Congressional delegation stops the senseless, knee-jerk opposition to offshore leasing and weighs the issue on its merits. Anything less means lost opportunities for Floridians.
Barney Bishop is a former Florida Democratic Party Executive Director and former Associated Industries of Florida CEO and President, and is CEO of Barney Bishop Consulting, LLC in Tallahassee. He can be reached at Barney@BarneyBishop.com