Rep. Seth McKeel’s Response to The Ledger’s Offshore Exploration Series

I’d like to thank the Ledger for devoting two days of editorials to the subject of energy exploration and production in Florida’s waters as well as the issue of energy independence in the United States, and what Florida’s potential role should be.

Before speaking to the subject of your editorial, it is important for readers to understand what is and is not in House Memorial 21 which I sponsored, and House Bill 1219 which seems to be the main subject of your two part series. The legislation I sponsored urges Congress to support the expiration of the moratorium on the exploration and production of oil and natural gas in federal waters surrounding Florida. House Bill 1219, sponsored by Representative Van Zant, deals with the exploration and production of these resources in state waters. Though I support both efforts, your editorial was ambiguous regarding distinction between the two.

First, House Bill 1219 would not have opened coastal waters to drilling upon passage. It simply would have directed the statewide elected members of the Florida Cabinet, sitting as the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, to receive and consider applications for oil and natural gas exploration. Proposals would be considered by the Cabinet on a case-by-case basis, and even if an application is denied, the $1 million application fee is kept by the state. Additionally, the Cabinet would set the rules by which any exploration or production of energy is carried out. While your editorial board favored including specific equipment and methods for energy extraction in law, I believe we have wisely left the adjustments to ever-improving technological advances to the Cabinet process, which is better equipped to act and change quickly.

The Ledger’s editorial also makes note that this proposal appeared in the last ten days of session, as though the question of energy exploration in the Gulf of Mexico has been taking place under the cover of darkness, or that my colleagues and I supported this proposal out of fear of reprisal from the Speaker Designate, Dean Cannon. This particular proposal may have been heard late in the Legislative Session, but the underlying issues of energy security, environmental protection, and economic development are anything but new. In fact, I have filed legislation dealing with offshore exploration each of the three years I have served in the Legislature. And neither Dean Cannon nor I made the electricity in Lakeland or nearly half of the homes in Florida run on natural gas. Nor did we put the oil reserves our country relies on in the Middle East or at the whim of Hugo Chavez. The need for this source of energy is not a secret to homeowners and electric rate-payers, nor is that need going to decrease in the foreseeable future.

Floridians want to know what their state government is doing to promote energy independence, new jobs, and economic development. I fail to see what “distraction” the exploration for energy in our waters poses to the development of alternative sources. The legislation directed portions of any royalties derived from energy production for just that purpose, but that is not all. Money will also be set aside to help fund Florida Forever Land Acquisition, Beach Restoration and Nourishment, Environmental Science education, and even direct funds to local governments. If no energy is produced, then we have lost nothing. However, if energy is extracted from our waters, the gains to our economy and the ability to fund Florida’s budget priorities could be enormous.

Your editorial board has said, “The longer that coastal drilling is under consideration, the farther Florida will be from energy independence.” I couldn’t disagree more. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own fact.” Saying that coastal exploration and production of energy cannot help promote independence does not make it so, and trying to eliminate one of the tools that can be used to reach that independence flies in the face of good sense. Floridians expect more than nay saying and bumper sticker campaigns – they expect solutions.

Wild swings in natural gas prices have hurt the residents of Lakeland and scores of other Floridians. And our state will soon be 50 percent dependent on natural gas for electricity – even if we ultimately get to 20% renewable energy in the future. I cannot in good conscience sit idly by while electricity ratepayers are left to the volatility of the market. Will the production of natural gas from our waters solve all of our problems? Probably not, but with energy exploration in our own waters, Floridians make the rules and receive the benefits. We can choose to play a part in controlling our own destiny. While other states like Texas and Louisiana use royalties for funding education and other programs, our prohibition prevents any financial benefit to Floridians. Why should Florida be the only Gulf Coast state not benefiting from its available energy resources?

I support the research and development of alternative energy sources, but a comprehensive energy strategy is just that – comprehensive. Ignoring sources of energy in our own backyard is short-sighted. Times and technologies have changed. Energy exploration is now safer, cheaper, and most importantly, cleaner than ever before. Waiting for unemployment to rise, the current recession to worsen, or the price of oil and natural gas to skyrocket again is not a prudent strategy for dealing with our energy and budgetary needs. Continuing the ban only serves to inhibit our ability to lessen our reliance on foreign energy sources, fund important priorities in our state’s budget, and create new well-paying jobs for Floridians.

Representative Seth McKeel

Florida House District 63