PENSACOLA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - For decades opposition to oil drilling off Florida's coast was one of the few issues uniting the state's Democrats and Republicans, who agreed that shielding the environment and the huge tourism industry came first.
By Matthew Bigg
Not now, as oil prices rise and U.S. motorists are paying serious prices at gasoline pumps.
Last week Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who often sounds like a Democrat, shattered the consensus by calling for an end to a federal moratorium on oil and gas drilling along the country's outer continental shelf.
His decision follows the stance of Republican presidential candidate John McCain on an emotional issue before November's election. Two Republican Florida congressmen also backed Crist.
What some see as a crack in the protective shield for Florida's $57 billion tourism industry has drawn howls of protest from Democrats and environmental groups.
They worry that the long battle against oil drilling in the Sunshine State has entered a new phase as spiraling gas prices threaten the status quo.
"There have been some cracks in that wall of opposition (to offshore drilling). There's no doubt about that," said Mark Ferrulo, director of Progress Florida, a nonprofit organization that supports environmental and liberal causes.
"It's primarily because the oil industry has been extremely strategic about their efforts to change public opinion," Ferrulo said, citing the effectiveness of oil companies' advertising campaign to promote energy independence.
For coastal oil drilling to resume, the U.S. Congress would have to lift a national moratorium and then Florida's legislature would have to approve drilling in state waters.
Opposition to such a plan likely would be fierce.
Environment Florida, an anti-drilling advocacy group, said it got an unprecedented response from supporters to a write-in campaign after Crist changed his position.
"This is an issue that folks care about, it seems to strike a chord more deeply than any other environmental issue in Florida," said Holly Binns, the group's director.
Pensacola Beach barrier island, just a few hundred yards (meters) wide but 47 miles long, depends on tourism and stands to lose as much as anywhere if oil rigs spoil the view or oil slicks ruin the beach, according to business owners.
Sandy Johnston, executive director of the island's Chamber of Commerce, said she was unconvinced by arguments that high gasoline prices will hurt tourism and so efforts to lower prices down should be welcomed.
"We can't find anything positive about it," she said.
Johnston cited an informal survey the chamber conducted two years ago among similar associations along the Texas Gulf coast on how drilling had affected their shorelines.
They reported problems with water clarity, tar on beaches, garbage and the need for extra maintenance, quite apart from the possibility, however remote, of a major spill on the scale of California's Santa Barbara spill of 1969, Johnston said.
The oil industry dismisses such concerns. Technology used to extract oil has improved dramatically in recent decades, said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, a lobbying group.
Public opinion started to move in favor of oil drilling off Florida after Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 forced many Floridians to wait in long lines for gas, Mica said.
Jeanne and other powerful hurricanes that battered Florida in 2004 and 2005 left millions of Floridians struggling to fill their gas tanks because of a lack of electricity to pump the fuel and difficulties getting fresh supplies into Florida.
Mica also said Hurricane Katrina in 2005 did not cause the disastrous damage to Gulf oil platforms some predicted before it smashed into the U.S. Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans.
Katrina destroyed 123 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, damaged dozens more, cut underwater pipelines and left a large swath of New Orleans covered in crude-tainted mud after swamping and damaging refineries onshore.
"Public opinion is supportive .... There is a considerable amount of people who are saying: 'It's time to give it a try (drilling) and watch it very closely,'" Mica said.
A business group that supports oil drilling release a survey
on Thursday saying 61 percent of Florida respondents support increased exploration and production of oil and natural gas off the Florida coasts.
When asked in what underwater locations Florida should allow increased exploration 22 percent of respondents said "anywhere" while 24 percent said at least 125 miles from shore, in an apparent indication of environmental concerns, the survey by the Associated Industries of Florida said.
Seventeen percent said they wanted drilling at least 25 miles from shore, 18 percent said out of sight of shore while nine percent said at least 50 miles from shore and 10 percent had no opinion on the subject.
The survey of 685 registered Florida voters, conducted on Tuesday, had a margin of error of 3.6 percent.
The last well drilled off Florida's coast was at Pensacola in 1970. If drilling resumed it could be in waters farther east at Destin Dome, though efforts would be complicated by the proximity of offshore naval training facilities, Mica said.
The area may contain around 3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 12 leased areas about 25 miles off the coast. The government bought back nine of the leases in 2000, while Murphy Oil Corp. owns three others, he said.
(Editing by Michael Christie and Vicki Allen)