In early October, tourism officials from across the state gathered in the Panhandle town of Destin for a two-day discussion on offshore oil drilling. Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus executive director Robert Skrob organized the summit after a bad summer for tourism, in part due to high gas prices. To lead the conversation, he invited five oil industry execs, a spokesman for Newt Gingrich's political consulting firm and a lone Florida biologist.
Not so long ago, a meeting like this would have been unheard of. For decades, Florida tourism officials have shied away from any discussion on offshore oil drilling. The risk of an oil spill was too great, they argued. It was a position both political parties in Florida always supported.
But that was before gas reached $4 a gallon. Before a presidential campaign highlighted the country's energy crisis. Before President Bush and a Democratic Congress rescinded the ban on offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil-drilling summit lasted two days. The Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus produced a report on the pros and cons of offshore drilling. Tourism officials returned to their local bureaus. Then in early December, even as gas prices fell, the FACVB did something else you wouldn't expect: They voted to endorse oil drilling off Florida's coast.
"This summer, we clearly saw that people were making choices not to travel based on energy prices," says Skrob in defense of the FACVB's position. "Our tourism industry is really fueled by energy, both by transportation and entertainment once they get here."
In short: What good are Florida's beaches if people can't afford to visit them?
The FACVB's decision was far from unanimous. Several coastal tourism bureaus from the Keys to Sarasota are still staunchly opposed to any offshore drilling. "I was a little surprised," says D.T. Minnich, president of the Clearwater/St. Petersburg tourism bureau, of the FACVB's position. "There is no reason for them to push this. There are just way too many risks, and you're flirting with disaster with Florida's No. 1 industry."
Minnich points to economic disasters in Louisiana and Texas after oil-drilling accidents closed beaches. One 2007 study of Galveston, Texas, found that beach closures cost the city $171,000 per day in lost revenue. That's not counting lost revenue to local businesses.
Skrob counters there is a balance between protecting beaches and promoting energy independence. He says the FACVB only supports oil drilling 30 miles or more offshore (just beyond the horizon) as part of a comprehensive energy policy that promotes alternative fuels.
"We really don't expect the incremental risk of pollution 30 miles offshore to affect our beaches," Skrob says. "If there was any expectation that `oil spills` could happen at all, then everybody would be against it. But the fact is, when we looked at this issue, with all the safeguards that are in place, there isn't any expectation that `oil drilling` would impact our beaches."
Enid Sisskin was the lone biologist presenting at the October oil-drilling summit. Director of the nonprofit Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, she says there is more to worry about than just oil spills.
"One of the major concerns is the amount of toxic waste that oil companies put right over the side of the rigs," she says. "Mud, cuttings, sand, sanitary waste, excess cement. Then there's the air pollution."
Sisskin also believes the mere fact that tourists know there are oil rigs off the coast will discourage them from visiting the state. "The reality of a clean environment or the perception of a clean environment is the key to our economy," she says.
Since many coastal counties lack theme parks like Disney World or Busch Gardens, beaches tend to be those areas' biggest attractions. Coastal communities are also one of the state's driving economic forces. An October study by the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council found that Florida's coastal economy contributed over $562 billion in revenue to the state in 2006. That's about 79 percent of the entire state's economic productivity, the study noted.
"Beaches are our asset here in Pinellas County," says Minnich of the Pinellas tourism bureau. "`Oil companies` claim oil won't show up on our shores, but there are humans running these rigs, and there's always the chance of mistakes. There are just too many ‘ifs.'?"
A version of this story originally appeared in Tampa's Creative Loafing.[email protected]