Jeb Bush Endorses Increase in Gulf Oil Production

Published January 1, 2006

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a longtime opponent of oil and natural gas production in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, has formally endorsed a proposal to allow production at distances exceeding 125 miles from the Florida coast.

Bush’s endorsement, announced by Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Colleen Castille on October 24, signals a shift among many Florida officials and environmentalists in favor of a more pragmatic approach to developing natural resources in an environmentally responsible manner.

Tough Restrictions

Production has been banned within 200 miles of the Florida Gulf Coast since 2001, when President George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush struck a deal to limit Gulf oil and natural gas production.

In 1997, then-president Bill Clinton had proposed opening 6 million acres of the Gulf, including some areas less than 200 miles from the Florida coast, to oil and gas production. Jeb Bush lobbied hard with his brother to scale back the Clinton proposal, ultimately persuading the current president to accept production in only 1.5 million acres of the Gulf, none of them within 200 miles of the Florida shore.

Prices Climb, Technology Improves

Key to Bush’s endorsement of more permissive oil and gas production are high fuel costs and a longstanding record of environmentally safe oil production in the Gulf.

Bush’s endorsement was favorably received by Floridians worried about high fuel prices, the future of Florida’s economy, and the state’s ability to pay for a variety of new environmental initiatives.

“The good things that Florida’s state and local governments do depend on having enough money to fund them while also keeping tax rates low enough to preserve a business-friendly climate,” observed J. Robert McClure, president of the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, in the November 1 Tallahassee Democrat. “Many of those good things include the obvious–such as the building of schools and roads. They also include a host of environment-friendly programs such as restoring the Everglades, acquiring pristine lands for wilderness protection, and safeguarding the aquifers where most Floridians get their drinking water.”

“It’s good to see that Jeb Bush is not afraid to reevaluate his positions when circumstances warrant,” observed Sterling Burnett, senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. “The facts show that oil and natural gas development more than 125 miles from shore does not pose a significant threat to Florida or its tourism industry.”

Environmentally Safe

Industry observers noted environmental risks associated with oil and natural gas production beyond 125 miles from the Florida shore are negligible.

“As for the Gulf, companies are producing oil more efficiently now than they were in the 1960s, and they’re doing it without damaging the environment,” McClure explained in the Tallahassee Democrat article. “The Coast Guard reports that from 1980 to 1999, some 7.4 billion barrels of oil were produced in offshore waters. The spills–less than 0.0001 percent of the oil produced–were less than the amount of oil that naturally seeps up from the bottom of the Gulf.”

“I don’t think Jeb’s position goes far enough,” said Burnett. “Oil and ecology are not diametrically opposed. You can have them both, and they do not need a 125 mile buffer between them.

“Look at the empirical record in the Gulf of Mexico,” Burnett added. “We have had two straight years of extraordinarily frequent and strong hurricanes in the Gulf, yet the oil rigs have not failed their environmental expectations.”

Political Battle Ahead

According to the October 25 Orlando Sun-Sentinel, not everybody was pleased with Bush’s new proposal.

“I don’t see any protection in starting to drill off the state of Florida,” Lale Mamaux, spokesman for state Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Boca Raton), told the Sun-Sentinel. “Florida’s environmental policies should not be dictated by what the oil and gas industry wants.”

A September poll by the Pew Research Center showed most Americans disagree with Wexler’s assessment. Explained Pew, “The survey finds that the rise in energy prices also has had a perceptible impact on public views of the tradeoff between boosting the energy supply and protecting the environment. A solid majority (57 percent) now says it is more important to develop new energy sources than to protect the environment, up from 49 percent who expressed that view in March.”

“I think there is a change,” agreed Linda Stuntz, a former official with the U.S. Department of Energy, in an article in the November 7 Greenwire. “I think there is growing recognition that we are supply constrained in this country. … People are willing to take a new look at ways to do this that are responsible.”

“Why shouldn’t Florida and other states be allowed to opt in to offshore oil and natural gas production?” Burnett wondered. Referring to pressure from Northeastern congressmen to keep the current moratorium in place, Burnett added, “What makes Massachusetts politicians better qualified than Floridians to determine what is best for the Florida shore? There is a reason why states such as Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas support offshore drilling: It makes sound economic and environmental sense.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.