Fla. Drilling Debate Has Wider Implications - Study

Florida's debate over whether to open its narrow strip of waters in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling is really about a much bigger decision, according to a report done for the state Legislature.

Lifting the Florida ban on drilling "might weaken the state's position when protesting oil and gas activities in submerged lands under federal jurisdiction," concludes the study, conducted by the Collins Center for Public Policy at the request of Senate President Jeff Atwater.

Yet another group, the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, which is overseeing preparation of the drilling analysis, met Monday in Orlando to receive and edit a draft of the report.

The Century Commission, appointed by lawmakers to probe a variety of economic and environmental issues, made clear it wants a report that avoids favoring either environmentalists or the drilling industry and instead provides a foundation of facts on which the Legislature can build.

As a result, it's leaving the job of coming up with conclusions and recommendations to legislators. Even individual commissioners declined to say Monday whether they thought the report makes a case for or against drilling and production rigs in state waters.

Tommy Boroughs, an Orlando lawyer and member of the commission, said the report does dispel some of the more extreme claims about drilling.

"It's not as risky as it might seem, and the rewards aren't as great as they might seem," Boroughs said.

Among the key details in the 40-page report are U.S. Geological Survey assessments that show Florida's share of the waters in the Gulf of Mexico -- from the beach to 10.3 miles offshore -- as having relatively small reserves of oil and natural gas beneath them.

The USGS estimates reserves of 110 million barrels of oil along the coast from Apalachicola to South Florida. That equals the amount of oil the nation imports in 11 days, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The geological agency is still compiling an assessment of reserves between Apalachicola and Pensacola, an area with the potential for large pockets of natural gas.

Florida appears to have limited petroleum reserves -- though experts say there is considerable uncertainty -- because the type of geology along the state's coast is unlike the oil-rich formations found along the coast in states such as Louisiana.

"Most of Florida and the waters under its jurisdiction lie atop a limestone platform that for the most part lacks structure features (like salt domes) that trap hydrocarbons," the report states.

Crude-oil reserves under federal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico -- from the state's water boundary to 200 miles offshore -- add up to an estimated 3.9 billion barrels of oil, the report states. That's far more than the estimates for state waters but much less than the amount thought to be in the central and western part of the Gulf of Mexico.

The report cites a private analysis done for the U.S. Mineral Management Service that suggests Florida in a best-case scenario could wind up with as many as 5,000 new jobs if federal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico were opened to drilling.

About the risk of an environmentalist disaster, the report states that "accidental oil spills are low-probability events."

"Of course, when they do [occur] ... they can cause significant damage," said Tom Arthur, one of the principal writers of the report.

The same presentation was given Monday afternoon in Tallahassee to the House Select Policy Council on Strategic & Economic Planning. Frank Alcock, another of the report's authors, said there that the infamous tar balls found on Texas beaches are likely not the result of accidental spills but rather natural seepage of crude oil from the sea floor.

"You've probably heard it before," said Alcock, alluding to the several drilling hearings already conducted by the council.

The Century Commission wants to come up with a final version of the report as soon as possible for presentation to Atwater and the rest of the Senate.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.