The dolphins and pelicans that swim just off Caladesi Island’s linen-white sands along Florida’s western coast help draw almost 80 million visitors and $57 billion to the “Sunshine State” each year.
As few as 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, energy companies say an even bigger prize waits to be taken from the seabed: oil and natural gas that might wean the U.S. off its costly dependence on resources from potentially unfriendly or unstable countries.
After opposing offshore drilling for a quarter century as a threat to their lucrative coastline, a majority of Floridians now favor it, polls show. Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline has hit voters’ pocketbooks and psyches, even as the U.S. government says offshore drilling would have a negligible effect on oil supply and price.
At a Hess gas station on the mainland near Caladesi, Gerald Walker says he used to be against extracting oil off Florida, until prices soared. “Drilling? At $3.64 a gallon, I’m all for it,” says the 60-year-old accountant.
“Drill, baby, drill!” is the Republican Party’s rallying cry, and presidential hopeful Senator John McCain of Arizona is gaining traction with it, even in this coastal swing state. An increasing number of Floridians side with him when told he advocates expanded drilling to drive down prices, says Brad Coker of Washington-based Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. Mason-Dixon’s is one of several polls conducted this summer that showed at least 6 in 10 Floridians now support drilling.
“It’s become a national-security issue because of wars in the Mideast and Russia’s newfound bravado and aggression,” Coker says.
McCain, 72, was 7 percentage points ahead of his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, 47, of Illinois, in a Florida poll released Sept. 11 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut.
In the 2004 election, President George W. Bush beat Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts by 5 percentage points in Florida. Voters in Pinellas County, home to Caladesi and nearby St. Petersburg, split 50-50 between the two men.
The U.S. burns through about 21 million barrels of oil a day. Almost 60 percent is imported, mainly from Africa, the Persian Gulf and Latin America. Some of the sellers are openly hostile; Venezuela expelled the U.S. ambassador last week. Oil industries in other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, have been targets of violence.
McCain is “holding out the promise that the energy crisis is a simple problem with an easy solution,” says Paul Roberts, author of “The End of Oil.” The “assumption is that we’re being kept from doing what we need to do by OPEC, liberals, regulators.”
Democratic congressional leaders, responding to public pressure and a Republican drumbeat, are considering bills this week that would open larger areas to oil and gas drilling as part of a comprehensive energy package.
Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp, a Republican, says the state’s leaders are “fully cognizant of how beautiful our state is” and don’t believe drilling will imperil that. “It’s got to be much safer technology to protect our beaches, and I think that’s entirely possible,” he says.
More than crude oil, the eastern Gulf of Mexico may be rich in natural gas. Existing wells that were capped because of a moratorium on drilling dating back to the mid-1980s might be exploited “in less than two years in an environmentally sensitive way” using modern technology, says David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, an oil- industry association.
In Pinellas County’s beach communities, the mania for drilling is still met with skepticism. When Congress began debating the issue last week, the local Tourism Development Council drafted a unanimous letter of opposition. Area mayors, hoteliers, restaurateurs and marine scientists say the risk of visual or environmental damage to beaches is too great for too uncertain a payoff.
“The U.S. has 3 percent of world oil reserves and uses 25 percent of world oil production,” says Florida’s Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. “So common sense tells you we can’t drill our way out of the problem.”
That logic hasn’t stopped McCain from focusing voters’ economic anxieties on a perceived bottleneck in oil supply. His Sept. 4 speech to the Republican National Convention drew some of the biggest roars of approval when he pledged to “stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much.” He said the U.S. “will drill new wells offshore, and we’ll drill them now.”
Proponents of expanded drilling “are not entirely wrong to say we should drill; it helps our dependence on foreign oil and means less money flowing out of the country,” says Phyllis Martin, a senior analyst at the U.S. Department of Energy. “But they’re wrong to say it’ll have a big impact on prices,” which are set by global markets.
McCain’s call to drill has been echoed by numerous candidates and has resonated with voters because of its apparent pocketbook appeal — despite the fact that the government’s analysis indicates even massive drilling would result in a price reduction of perhaps two-tenths of one cent 18 years after drilling begins.
Even if there’s political will to drill, it may not be feasible right away. “There’s a misperception that we have all this oil and gas off our coast, and oil companies are waiting in line to rush out the moment it opens,” Martin says. “That’s not true. Just about every available oil rig is already drilling.”
Back on Caladesi Island, Darren Wilder, 43, a beach attendant sheltering from storms brought on by Hurricane Ike, says no one wants to see oil rigs on the horizon or spills that would endanger starfish and heron that populate the sugar-white shore.
Still, with dependence on oil a necessity for years to come, “I think the good of drilling would outweigh the bad,” he says.