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Florida's 'Back Yard' on Front Burner

Bush Brothers Face Off

The handwriting was on the wall when a leading U.S. auto manufacturer announced production of a 10-mile-to-the-gallon behemoth to make the suburban trek between home and the ubiquitous coffee emporia. It was a sure sign the nation's latest energy-guzzling bender had spun out of control.

The aftermath of the longtime party: A national "energy crisis" that's shaping up to be one doozy of a hangover.

There's the expected hue and cry from that segment of the citizenry that considers cheap gasoline to be its birthright; the governor of California threatening to seize a major energy supplier's power plants; and the chant of "NIMBY" -- or Not In My Back Yard -- resonating throughout the petroleum-gorging state of Florida.

The upside to this mess: It appears the United States. might finally get a viable energy policy, provided its planners and supporters can hold their ground once the draft of the policy goes before the recently-rebalanced Congress.

Total national energy self-sufficiency may be only a pipe dream. Yet, there are some vast, previously-untapped hydrocarbon resources that could do much to stem the tide of dwindling domestic production, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Rocky Mountain federal lands and certain offshore Gulf of Mexico (GOM) areas.

While opposition by environmental activists and politicians to ANWR development has been some of the most vocal, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, publicly cites the successful, non-invasive 25-year production history from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay as proof positive that the coastal plain of ANWR can be explored and developed without harming the environment.

Edging ANWR off the front pages lately is the rising rage within Florida over the proposed Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) lease sale under the aegis of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) in the eastern GOM, where some impressive accumulations of hydrocarbons are projected to exist.

Adding intrigue to the hot issue is the sibling tug-of-war it's triggered between Sunshine State Governor Jeb Bush, who opposes the sale, and proponent George W. Bush.

Defining the Need

The proposed Lease Sale 181 would be the first in the eastern GOM since 1988.

The sale area encompasses about 5.9 million acres, or roughly 8 percent of the total Eastern Planning Area. It includes 120 blocks in a narrow band offshore Alabama, along with 913 blocks in deeper water closer to Louisiana than Florida and adjacent to the prolifically productive Mississippi Canyon area in the Central GOM.

The program boundaries were carefully drawn to accommodate Florida's long-standing demand for a 100-mile buffer zone from its coastline, as well as a more recent request by the state of Alabama for a 15-mile buffer offshore Baldwin County.

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The handwriting was on the wall when a leading U.S. auto manufacturer announced production of a 10-mile-to-the-gallon behemoth to make the suburban trek between home and the ubiquitous coffee emporia. It was a sure sign the nation's latest energy-guzzling bender had spun out of control.

The aftermath of the longtime party: A national "energy crisis" that's shaping up to be one doozy of a hangover.

There's the expected hue and cry from that segment of the citizenry that considers cheap gasoline to be its birthright; the governor of California threatening to seize a major energy supplier's power plants; and the chant of "NIMBY" -- or Not In My Back Yard -- resonating throughout the petroleum-gorging state of Florida.

The upside to this mess: It appears the United States. might finally get a viable energy policy, provided its planners and supporters can hold their ground once the draft of the policy goes before the recently-rebalanced Congress.

Total national energy self-sufficiency may be only a pipe dream. Yet, there are some vast, previously-untapped hydrocarbon resources that could do much to stem the tide of dwindling domestic production, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Rocky Mountain federal lands and certain offshore Gulf of Mexico (GOM) areas.

While opposition by environmental activists and politicians to ANWR development has been some of the most vocal, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, publicly cites the successful, non-invasive 25-year production history from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay as proof positive that the coastal plain of ANWR can be explored and developed without harming the environment.

Edging ANWR off the front pages lately is the [PFItemLinkShortcode|id:20836|type:standard|anchorText:rising rage within Florida over the proposed Outer Continental Shelf|cssClass:asshref|title:read East Gulf Potential Attractive|PFItemLinkShortcode] (OCS) lease sale under the aegis of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) in the eastern GOM, where some impressive accumulations of hydrocarbons are projected to exist.

Adding intrigue to the hot issue is the sibling tug-of-war it's triggered between Sunshine State Governor Jeb Bush, who opposes the sale, and proponent George W. Bush.

Defining the Need

The proposed Lease Sale 181 would be the first in the eastern GOM since 1988.

The sale area encompasses about 5.9 million acres, or roughly 8 percent of the total Eastern Planning Area. It includes 120 blocks in a narrow band offshore Alabama, along with 913 blocks in deeper water closer to Louisiana than Florida and adjacent to the prolifically productive Mississippi Canyon area in the Central GOM.

The program boundaries were carefully drawn to accommodate Florida's long-standing demand for a 100-mile buffer zone from its coastline, as well as a more recent request by the state of Alabama for a 15-mile buffer offshore Baldwin County.

Hydrocarbon resource numbers for the largely unexplored acreage included in the Sale 181 program vary depending on the source.

MMS numbers for the undiscovered, conventionally recoverable resources of the area, said deputy regional supervisor for resource evaluation David Marin, are:

♦  Oil: 0.650-1.446 Bbo (Mean = 0.843 Bbo).

♦  Gas: 3.233-5.193 Tcf (Mean = 3.8555 Tcf).

The National Petroleum Council's 1999 study on natural gas attributes the lease area with the potential to produce a hefty 7.8 Tcf and 1.9 Bbo, according to C. Stedman Garber Jr., current vice-chairman of the IADC and president and CEO of Santa Fe International Corp.

These volumes take on added meaning when placed in the context of Florida's voracious energy appetite. Indeed, the state ranks as the nation's third largest consumer of petroleum products, and yet it produces only 2 percent of the petroleum it consumes, according to Florida Energy Information data derived from the Department of Energy's Florida Energy Profile (1997) and the MMS Lease Sale 181 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Moreover, South Florida's population is expected to double to eight million by 2010, and its electricity demand is expected to double from 1.5 Bcf/day in 2000 to 3.0 Bcf/day in 2008. Twenty-four new electrical generating plants will have been or will be added to the Florida power grid from 1995 to 2004, with 21 of these designed to be gas-fired.

Stedman noted the natural gas from the lease sale region alone could satisfy the current natural gas needs of Florida's 5.9 million households for the next 16 years.

NIMBY Fever

Still, the anti-drilling folks talk of dire consequences should Lease Sale 181 occur. They predict massive oil spills -- from natural gas wells -- that will defile the perennially tourist-packed, white-sand beaches and destroy fish habitats, among other frightening scenarios.

Ironically, Gulf Breeze-based pro-drilling activist Klaus Gohrbandt, a retired Chevron petroleum geologist, noted, "I'm an avid fisherman, and when we want to fish we head to Alabama, because the good catches are around the rigs."

The state's official NIMBY stance on oil and gas production is well-documented in its long-standing battle with Chevron over development of Destin Dome Block 56. The field lies 25 miles south of Pensacola and 20 miles east of the so-called "stovepipe" section of the Lease Sale 181 area. Block 56 is projected to harbor from 1 to 3 Tcf of dry, natural gas, according to the Florida Energy Information data.

Destin Dome is part of the Jurassic Norphlet Trend -- a major producing natural gas trend that extends westward in the GOM from the Destin Dome blocks to offshore blocks south of Pascagoula, Miss.

Chevron acquired leases there in 1984, prior to leasing moratoria off much of the Florida coast, imposed during the elder Bush's White House tenure, said MMS spokesperson A.B. Wade.

The company submitted an exploration plan to both the MMS and the state of Florida, in accordance with the Coastal Zone Management Act, to seek approval to proceed with drilling operations.

Florida rejected the plan, but the U.S. Commerce Department overruled the denial, and Chevron proceeded to drill to delineate the lease. A development plan submitted in 1996 was again rejected by Florida and now awaits a decision from Commerce.

Despite the prevalent political and environmental-activist NIMBY rhetoric regarding Lease Sale 181, Gohrbandt is far from alone in recognizing the state's tenuous energy situation and the need to attain some degree of self-sufficiency.

"I'm tired of Florida being a politically-created energy welfare state," said Bill Boe, a retired Gainsville history teacher and native Floridian.

"Florida is part of the energy problem," he said, " and we just expect other people to send their energy to us.

"There's a huge number of us vets living here," Boe continued, "and we all agree we'd rather risk some millimeter of something on our beaches than see more buckets of American blood spilled defending oil wells in the Middle East."

Scoffing at predictions of environmental damage from drilling, Boe asserts the greatest environmental disaster in Florida's history is the overpopulation of its coastal wetlands, with 13 million people living within 30 miles of the coast.

Boe doesn't just talk the talk. His pro-drilling campaign agenda includes an upcoming visit to the nation's capitol at his expense to lobby members of Florida's congressional delegation to ditch "a political strategy of fear and help the state become more energy independent."

Other Sources

The Sunshine State doesn't have far to go to acquire other people's energy.

The Central Gulf is a veritable hotbed of drilling activity, and the governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are on record in favor of the proposed lease sale. They cite the jobs it will create, the dollars to be spent on products and services by the industry and the need for the additional energy supply.

Indeed, the MMS expects the central Gulf Coast region to benefit from as many as 5,534 jobs during peak activity, most likely in the year 2019. There would be 1,691 jobs created indirectly, with 2,202 additional jobs in the private sector.

When preparing the initial EIS for the proposed lease sale, the federal agency analyzed numerous factors and what the potential environmental effects might be. These include:

  • Air and water quality.
  • Oil spill risk.
  • Sea-bottom habitats for marine life.
  • Military operations in this area of the GOM.

The agency reveiwed three alternatives relative to the proposed sale:

  1. All unleased blocks within Lease Sale 181 area would be offered for lease.
  2. Defer 126 blocks in the eastern area due to possible conflicts between oil and gas operations and military operations.
  3. No Action, which is equivalent to canceling the sale.

Once the Final EIS is complete sometime early in July, the agency will select one of these alternatives.

For now, the sale is planned to occur in December, with October being the "drop dead" date for a final decision, according to Wade at the MMS.

"This is because industry needs to know," she said, "and, by law, we must have time to issue the final notice and then have a public comment period."

"I think they'll definitely hold the sale," Gohrbandt said, "and we need this gas badly."

Still, his congressional representative, Joe Scarborough, R-Pensacola, said it's not going to come from Lease Sale 181, because "my back yard depends on a clean environment."

He doesn't specify where, in fact it will come from.

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