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House panel passes measure to open door to oil drilling

In a full-barreled appeal to the House Policy Council, the oil and gas industry persuaded lawmakers to vote 17-6 along party lines to open the door to oil and gas exploration in the state waters. The only Democrat to support it was Fort Lauderdale Rep. Yolly Roberson and every Republican voted for it.

The council approved an amendment by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, that would lift Florida's ban on oil drilling off state waters and replace it with a plan to allow the governor and Florida Cabinet to seek bidders to lease state land for exploration and ultimately drilling of oil and gas. The amendment appeared at the last meeting of the last stop on a related bill by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, and replaced his bill.

The group of presenters included Lewis Sessions, a Dallas-based lawyer who represents unnamed West Texas oil companies. He told the committee that last year Texas earned $7 billion from taxes and fees on oil and gas leases and production. The money was used to fund Texas higher education and land preservation.

"The states of Louisianna and Texas have declining oil production because they have been producing over 100 years,'' he said. "You have the opportunity to be able to learn from their mistakes."

Mason Dixon pollster Larry Harris said that if the public can be convinced that oil and gas drilling is environmentally safe, 88 percent support it. Short of that, 59 percent of the public generally supports it, he said.

Orlando economist Hank Fishkind said that judging from 15-year-old federal estimates, there is about 3 billion gallons of oil off Florida's coast. If 150 million barrels were drilled each year, at a rate of $53 per barrel and 20 percent royalties, the state would earn $31 billion over 20 years.

He also predicted that oil and gas production would produce 17,000 to 20,000 jobs and produce $1.59 billion in direct economic benefit.

Unlike Cannon's presenters, who had been working on his bill for weeks, the environmentalists said they were caught off guard by the last-minute emergence of the idea and urged the council to reject it.

"Please do not allow people who are being compensated most generously to articulate on behalf of the oil  industry talk to you about the environmental sensitivity of oil drilling three miles from our coast,'' industry,'' said Debbie Harrison of the World Wildlife Fund. 

She said that the ocean and coastal economics of the state of Florida contributes $587 billion in gross state product each year, according to the Florida Oceans Council. "Do not give our environmental legacy and the future of our state to the profits of the oil industry,'' she said.

Rep. Baxter Troutman, a Lakeland Republican, challenged Cannon on his presumptions but supported the bill. He asked if there is a Senate companion for the proposal -- there isn't -- and if it has the governor's support -- he didn't say.

"They have an interest in moving it forward,'' Cannon said. If the House passes it "they would receive that as a favorable signal."

Short of that, the measure becomes prime fodder for Cannon to seek campaign donations from the oil and gas industry for his bid to raise funds for a Republican majority in 2010, when he is slated to become House speaker.