Fighting to protect Florida’s beaches, Buchanan staunchly opposes off-shore oil drilling

Concerned that another major oil spill could wreak havoc on Florida’s environment and tourism-driven economy, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) is leading the charge against the Trump administration’s plans to open up more of the Gulf of Mexico to off-shore oil drilling.

“Clean water, clean air is the right thing for our area and that’s why I’ve been so strong for it for the last 10 years,” U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) told The Ripon Advance in a recent interview.

Buchanan aims to protect Florida’s coastline – the 16th Congressional District he represents boasts some of the top beaches in the nation – from the risks of another potential disaster like what occurred with Deepwater Horizon in 2010. The oil-drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana killed 11 workers and resulted in the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

More than 4 million barrels of oil were released into the ocean. Florida is slated to receive $3.25 billion from BP as a result of a 2015 settlement.

Even though the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred far from the Florida coast, “the fact that it was in the Gulf and in the national press every day, it impacted tourism in a big way in our area. A lot of the businesses were down 60-80 percent,” Buchanan said.

“And we’re still today concerned about the impact of that in terms of fishing,” he said. “If you look at real estate values, tourism, the environment – we can’t take the risk.”

The strength of the state’s tourism industry also is closely linked to the health of the construction sector, another major industry in Florida.

Opening more federal land and waters to oil and gas drilling is a pillar of President Donald Trump’s plan to make the United States energy independent.

The Trump administration released a proposal on March 6 that could open up 73 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast for oil and gas exploration and development over the next five years starting in August. The Department of Interior also recently announced the bids garnered in a lease sale of 163 tracts in the Central Planning Area of the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico off of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

“The Gulf is a vital part of that strategy to spur economic opportunities for industry, states, and local communities, to create jobs and home-grown energy and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at the time of the announcement.

Last month, Buchanan joined a bipartisan group of Florida’s congressional delegation in urging Zinke to put a stop to any plans to drill off Florida’s coast in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Drilling in this area threatens Florida’s multi-billion-dollar, tourism-driven economy and is incompatible with the military training and weapons testing that occurs there,” the letter said. Furthermore, seven years after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the full extent of the impact on marine life is still not known, the lawmakers said.

Congress passed the Gulf of Mexico Energy and Security Act in 2006, which created a moratorium on drilling in most of the eastern Gulf, including areas east of the Military Mission Line (MML). The eastern Gulf provides a testing and training range for the military, with pilots at Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, for example, using the open space to train with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets.

The Florida Defense Support Task Force, a legislatively mandated council that aims to protect Florida’s military missions, said to allow drilling east of the MML would mean loss of range areas and possible relocation of aircraft/bases to other unrestricted range areas.

Last year Buchanan supported Interior Department rules that improved national well safety requirements, such as more frequent testing of blowout preventers, the same device that malfunctioned on Deepwater Horizon. But safety remains a major issue.

“There have been some improvements, but I’m pretty confident not enough. These accidents can happen regardless of what they put in place,” he said.

Preserving the more than 50 miles of coastline that runs along his district is one area Buchanan said he would continue fighting for. “I represent the western part of Florida so I’m against any drilling in the Florida area. I feel like that’s my job and I’ve got to push back.”