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Revenue vs. Environment

[Photo: St. Petersburg Times]
Residents in Galveston, Texas, are used
to seeing offshore oil drilling platforms.
Will we see something similar off
Florida's beaches?

They appeared in the spring, a secretive group trying to upend Florida's longtime ban on offshore drilling by promising millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.

The effort to allow drilling within 3 to 10 miles of the beaches failed to pass the Legislature, but only just. Now emissaries from Florida Energy Associates LLC are touring the state to campaign for overturning the ban at the next legislative session, either this fall or next spring. Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, says he'll sponsor a bill to allow drilling as close as 5 miles offshore.

But if Florida Energy Associates gets its wish, what will Florida get? According to company officials, residents will see:

• Drilling for oil, not gas, but in only limited areas along the Gulf Coast, including off Pasco and Hernando counties and up in the Panhandle. However, there could be no drilling off Pinellas County's beaches, in the Keys or anywhere along the Atlantic coast.

• Blue-collar crew jobs on the rigs, but nothing for supervisors, who will likely be imported from Louisiana. The rigs will also require supplies ferried in by boats, not helicopters.

•Construction work building underwater pipelines — the source of most offshore spills — to carry the oil to Louisiana.

•No refineries, but some onshore facilities such as a plant to separate oil from the pollution-laden water that comes up with it. That could create further debates about where such a facility could be.

M. Lance Phillips, the Texas oilman leading the charge to overturn Florida's ban, says he's sure there's oil within a few miles of the state's white sand beaches.

"It's all in close," he said. "The heart of what we're looking at is in state waters."

Geological studies and legalities indicate the target is the gulf, not the Atlantic coast. But even there, there are obstacles. No one can drill within the state's aquatic preserves, said Doug Daniels, the Daytona Beach attorney representing the oil consortium. That lets out Pinellas County, since the state waters along its famous beaches are part of a preserve.

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