MIAMI – As the debate heats up over President Bush's call for Congress to end a decades-old ban on offshore oil drilling, the prospect of drilling off the Florida coast has drawn scrutiny to the benefits and risks of such a plan.
Exactly how much untapped oil could be found along the country's coastline is unclear. The National Petroleum Council estimates that 5 billion barrels lie off Florida's coast alone, while the Energy Information Administration suggests the number is closer to 16 billion barrels. Other estimates go as high as 21 billion barrels.
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"If we as a nation can bring our own resources into this mix, we would not see the prices we're seeing right now," said Rayola Dougher, senior economic adviser for the American Petroleum
Institute. "We really need all the oil and natural gas we can bring to market, and it's here — it's U.S. homegrown — and we really have the technology to go after it, to develop it
in a way we never did before."
Under the congressional ban in place since 1981, no oil rigs are allowed within 125 miles of Florida's coast. In addition to calling Wednesday for an end to the ban, Bush asked Congress to end restrictions on oil shale drilling and to allocate more land in Alaska for development. Republican presidential candidate John McCain backs part of the plan, but does not support oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Democratic candidate Barack Obama opposes the entire proposal.
"These areas have been off-limits to development for decades now," Dougher said. "The technology has really changed. They can do it in a very safe way and they can go up to 200 miles offshore. It's not like you would have a rig that you would be looking at from some beach."
Dougher estimated rigs in Florida could produce up to 2 million barrels per day.
"It makes perfect sense to go ahead develop these resources," she said.
But some environmentalists aren't so sure.
"Offshore drilling is dirty, dangerous and it doesn't deliver," said Adam Rivera, citizen outreach director for Environment Florida. "Just the routine toxic pollution from offshore drilling poses a huge threat to our beaches and our coastal-based economy."
Aside from detrimental environmental consequences like increased mercury in marine life, Rivera said offshore drilling won't equate to lower gas prices.
"There is only six or 12 months of oil off our coastline, so that's not nearly enough to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," he said. "One of the best things we can do to actually lower prices at the pump is to raise fuel economy standards."
Rivera said risking damage to Florida's beaches — which generate an estimated $50 billion in tourism annually — is just too costly.
"We've never had a governor in the state of Florida who's been pro-offshore drilling, and the reasons are clear," he said. "It would be a disaster for our state's environment and economy."