Florida Skips Offshore Oil Binge but Still Pays

June 12, 2010

By DAMIEN CAVE

KEY LARGO, Fla. — When rigs first started drilling for oil off Louisiana’s coast in the 1940s, Floridians scanned their shoreline, with its resorts and talcum-white beaches, and said, No thanks. Go ahead and drill, they told other Gulf Coast states; we’ll stick with tourism.

Now that invisible wall separating Florida from its neighbors has been breached. The spreading BP oil spill has already reached the Panhandle, and if it rides currents to the renowned reefs and fishing holes on both Florida coasts, the Sunshine State could become a vacation destination with the rules of a museum: Look, but don’t touch.

All because other states decided to rely on oil and gas, angry Floridians say; all because, in the water, there are no borders — only currents that can carry catastrophes hundreds of miles.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said Mike McLaughlin, 42, while stretching tanned shark skin on a dock here in the Keys. “We’re just sitting here, waiting for it all to disappear.”

Many Floridians, of course, say they are heartbroken for Louisiana, and they still reserve their most caustic criticism for BP and government regulators.

But with oil continuing to gush from a well off Louisiana, Florida has grown angrier at its oil-friendly neighbors. Gov. Charlie Crist said in an interview last week that “there’s a certain level of frustration” with the fact that Florida gets little if any financial benefit from offshore drilling, even though it shares the environmental risks.

On docks and beaches, many Floridians are less measured, and compare Louisiana to a neighbor with a bonfire that has set their block ablaze.

To some extent, it is a conflict set up by history. Louisiana and Florida may share the Gulf of Mexico, but they are essentially oil opposites.

Ever since World War II, when tar balls washed ashore across the gulf after German U-boats sank Allied oil tankers, Florida officials have held drilling at bay with state laws and lobbying in Washington to protect their state’s bustling tourism industry.

Louisiana, meanwhile, is an oil state through and through that discovered its first commercial deposits in 1901 and started drilling offshore in 1947.

State officials have never looked back, and the resulting divide between the two states is now economic as well as cultural: oil and gas contribute about $65 billion a year to the Louisiana economy, according to the state’s oil and gas association, while in Florida, tourism accounts for about $60 billion.

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