- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

A Florida tourism group has dropped its long-standing opposition to offshore oil and gas drilling, saying that a cheap national fuel supply would trigger a boom for the Sunshine State’s No. 1 industry.

When gasoline prices skyrocketed to more than $4 per gallon this summer tourist spots such as Florida suffered, as would-be vacationers stayed home. So in response, the Florida Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus (FACVB) has adopted a new policy that encourages a “comprehensive, long-term energy policy” that includes increased oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico along Florida’s coast.

“Affordable and available fuel makes it easier for consumers to consider Florida as their vacation destination,” the group said in a three-page position paper released in late October.

The group, which represents more than 50 county tourism agencies from across Florida, said alternative energy sources also should be encouraged, such as ethanol and cellulosic fuel, as well as conservation efforts. But for an organization that for years opposed oil drilling off the Florida coast, its new pro-drilling position is a significant policy shift.

“We are dependent on oil and will be for many decades,” said FACVB Executive Director Robert Skrob. “With that said, we wanted to do [a policy] in a way that is responsible and protected our state’s natural resources.”

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist earlier this year also dropped his long-standing opposition to offshore drilling.

Florida tourism generated $65.5 billion in revenues from 84.5 million visitors in 2007, and was responsible for directly employing almost 1 million Floridians, the FACVB said.

FACVB supports drilling only at least 30 miles offshore, meaning that the platforms would be out of sight from the shore, Mr. Skrob said.

The group also advocates a five-year moratorium on new leases in the eastern Gulf of Mexico so state officials can evaluate oil production safety and evaluate any impact on Florida’s natural resources.

But environmentalists and the fishing industry worry that oil spills from platforms even 30 miles out could pose serious environmental hazards.

FACVB’s new policy didn’t come easy, as some members rejected lifting the group’s objection to offshore drilling.

“It took several weeks to hash out,” Mr. Skrob said. “Rather than pull out the old ‘against stamp’ and say, no, we’re just going to be against oil drilling, we decided to really take a look at the facts and think through the issue. And we thought that, as part of a comprehensive package this made sense.”

In September, Congress let expire a 26-year ban on new oil and gas leases on most of the outer continental shelf - three miles to 200 miles offshore. The moratorium was enacted in 1982 and had been renewed every year since.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said last week there will be serious discussion as to the “parameters” to which offshore drilling will be pursued. But he added that Democrats will not try to backtrack after grudgingly giving in to Republican demands to allow the ban to expire.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he would accept limited additional offshore oil drilling but only if it is part of a comprehensive energy policy that includes measures to foster fuel-efficient automobiles and develop alternate energy sources.

Gasoline prices have dropped nearly in half since the ban was lifted.

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