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Offshore oil drilling has been off the table in Florida since 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill

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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 likely shut the door politically on oil drilling in Florida waters, a Florida State University oceanography professor said Monday on the five-year anniversary of the spill.

In April 2010, a Florida House committee led by future House Speaker Dean Cannon was considering draft legislation to allow drilling in state waters 10.6 miles off the Gulf Coast. But the Senate said it wouldn’t take up a bill.

Then the Deepwater Horizon explosion 42 miles off the Louisiana coast killed 11 workers and discharged an estimated 210 million gallons of oil. In Tallahassee, talk of offshore oil drilling legislation ended.

“Whether oil and gas drilling is going to happen — I doubt it seriously,” said Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University. “If there was one fact from the spill, it was to firmly settle the minds of Florida politicians and citizens they don’t want drilling offshore” in state or federal waters.

However, David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council said his group still would like to see offshore drilling once studies are done to show that it is feasible and safe.

On Thursday, FSU’s MacDonald will be on a Tallahassee Scientific Society panel at the Challenger Learning Center to discuss the spill. He said he hopes people will take away from his message a focus on participating in democracy.

“Otherwise the people who are going to call the shots here are the industry interests,” MacDonald said.

In the immediate weeks after the spill, MacDonald was featured in The New York Times and other national publications for challenging BP and federal government estimates on the amount of oil that was spilled.

“The absolute requirement for an independent rigorous evaluation of the rate of the flow should be one of the very first lessons taken away,” MacDonald said Monday.

Five years after the spill, MacDonald says there still is a lack of scientific and regulatory response that was present after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. That spill led to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the use of double-hulled oil tankers.

MacDonald said the billions of dollars paid by BP in response to the Gulf oil spill has been “dissipated,” partially through economic claims.

“Where is the public infrastructure for improving the marine environment?” MacDonald said. “That doesn’t mean you build a conference center on the beach somewhere or do beach nourishment.

“It means you have a comprehensive understanding of the natural system and to monitor it and make corrections necessary as change is occurring. That capability has not been established as a result of the spill and the dispersement of billions of dollars. That is discouraging to me as a scientist and someone who had a role early in the assessment of the spill.”

In 2010, the House panel received presentations from oil industry experts about new drilling techniques, robotic technologies and extensive fleet of vessels available to respond to an oil spill cleanup.

“Some of the technology really was worthless in terms of controlling the spill,” MacDonald said, citing the thousands of miles of oil boom deployed with little success.

In recent years since the spill, oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been a source of controversy in the Legislature. This year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is supporting bills to establish permitting requirements for fracking while environmentalists are opposing them.

Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said his group still supports offshore drilling in Florida, but not in the 2015 legislative session. He cited American Petroleum Institute reports on drilling improvements and public opinion surveys in support of offshore energy production.

“The American people are pushing for it,” Mica said Monday. “The American people — we need to extract the resource. We need to go forward and look for all kinds of new energy.”

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

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