It’s strange to think about ground truths determining the future of offshore exploration, but that’s exactly what is happening in the southeastern United States.
In June, the American Petroleum Institute announced its new Explore Offshore initiative, a coalition of more than 100 community organizations, associations, businesses and local leaders in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Attitudes about offshore drilling in those states grow out of a push-pull mélange of increasing energy needs, recreational opportunities, beach life, environmentalism and a heavy reliance on gasoline and jet fuel to bring in tourists and their dollars.
API describes Explore Offshore as a bipartisan effort “representing a diverse group of community organizations, businesses, and local associations across the Southeast that support safe and responsible expanded U.S. access to oil and natural gas through advanced technologies.”
Florida, with its extensive tourism industry, could be the archetype for a state struggling to balance energy needs with other local concerns.
Former Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp, now a practicing attorney in Tallahassee, serves as co-chair for Explore Offshore in the state. He noted that Florida gets about 110 million visitors a year.
“Affordable energy, oil and gas, it’s so closely tied to our economy down here. When we see these increases in gas price we take a huge hit in the number of people who can drive down here to Disney World, for example,” Kottkamp said.
Last year, Florida was among the fastest growing U.S. states in population. For the period July 2016 to July 2017, it was second only to Texas in population expansion.
“We will have a significant population growth in Florida, another 3 million, 4 million people,” Kottkamp said. “We will have additional energy needs.”
Erik Milito, API’s director of upstream and industry operations, said the Explore Offshore coalition was founded to solidify support for “expanded access to U.S. natural gas and oil resources and the National Offshore Leasing Plan, which will play a critical role in America’s long-term energy and economic future.”
That plan, officially called the National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program, is developed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management under the U.S. Department of the Interior. It saw a significant potential increase in scope in January of this year.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed making more than 90 percent of the total OCS acreage available to consider for future exploration and development. The proposal would have included three lease sales each for the Mid- and South Atlantic regions, two for the North Atlantic region and one for the Straits of Florida.
But a week after that announcement, following negative public response, Zinke said drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would be “off the table” for the time being.
Then in April, Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission approved a constitutional amendment question for the state’s November 2018 ballot that would prohibit oil and gas exploration in Florida’s state waters while also banning electronic-cigarette vaping in indoor workspaces.
Asked about that unusual combination, the commission said it was trying to cut down on the number of proposed amendments by consolidating different concerns into one question, in this case under a “clean-water, clean-air” umbrella.
API’s Explore Offshore announcement drew opposition almost immediately. The day following its news release, Florida’s Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson filed an amendment to the annual national defense bill that would keep exploration and production out of the eastern Gulf of Mexico for an additional five years.
“Like us, Big Oil doesn’t believe Florida is really off the table to new drilling – despite what (Florida Gov. Rick) Scott and the Trump administration keep saying – and now they are making a new push to drill closer to Florida’s shores. We can’t let that happen!” Nelson said in a tweet.
Soon after the API announcement, Oceana, an international advocacy organization focused on ocean conservation, held a meeting in Chincoteague, Va., in opposition to offshore drilling and seismic work.
In South Carolina, Peg Howell, co-founder of the group Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic, and Frank Knapp Jr., president and CEO of the state’s Small Business Chamber of Commerce, derided the initiative.
“Big Oil is creating this fake coalition made up primarily of former elected officials who have no responsibility to represent the public and businesses that will be harmed,” Knapp was quoted as saying.
Kottkamp commented, “Tourism is obviously a large part of our economy. Some people who don’t want offshore exploration just assume that people in the oil and gas industry don’t care. And nothing could be farther from the truth.”
The other co-chairs for Explore Offshore Florida are Miriam Ramirez, a former Puerto Rico state senator, and Wayne Harris, former Okaloosa County commissioner.
“The Department of the Interior took a step in the right direction by proposing to open up additional areas of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to new exploration for oil and natural gas,” Ramirez stated.
“Our neighbors in the Gulf of Mexico support thriving tourism industries all while developing offshore energy resources that create high-paying jobs to those states, provide much needed state revenue and economic investment, and deliver greater energy security to America,” she said.
Harris said the United States and Florida need to use recent advances in technology and science “to find out exactly what energy resources lay in our waters, and how we can produce that energy in a responsible manner in the years ahead.”
Kottkamp said future offshore oil and gas activity should take place “only in a way that preserves Florida’s natural beauty,” and also noted that development is restricted in a significant area of Florida for military training and testing activities.
This restriction includes the 180,000-square-mile Joint Gulf Range Complex as well as 17 miles of adjacent dedicated shoreline and 724 square miles of onshore area.
“We have a very significant part of the Gulf set aside for that range,” Kottkamp said. “We have an important balancing act here.”
API said the national Explore Offshore effort will be co-chaired by Jim Webb, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy and a former Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia, and Jim Nicholson, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
Among its activities, Explore Offshore will host local events and try to engage and educate local communities on safe and responsible access to U.S. resources and the related positive economic and energy benefits, API announced. Kottkamp said public education and awareness are essential.
“You have to really educate people. This has already happened offshore Florida, but so far offshore you don’t see it,” he noted.
“The first step is really going out there and talking about this, having a meaningful conversation. We’ve got to get into the weeds on this,” Kottkamp said. “Let’s not take anything off the table.”