WASHINGTON — Despite state and federal drilling bans along most of Florida’s western shoreline, the state’s coastal communities are still at risk from oil spills because of inadequate enforcement of drilling elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, according to environmental researchers and federal investigators.
The federal government doesn’t enforce essential monitoring and decommissioning standards on the offshore drilling industry, making it hard to detect and track leaks in oil and gas pipelines, according to an April report by the Government Accountability Office.
Two bills awaiting a U.S. House vote would strengthen offshore drilling regulations and impose annual fees on pipeline owners.
One of the bills would impose stricter pipeline oversight and require pipeline owners to pay an annual fee to raise revenue for oil spill cleanup efforts. Another would require drilling operators to report any equipment failures to the Interior Department rather than the Transportation Department, which has little to do with drilling issues; the reports also would be made public.
The legislation aims to discourage continued investment in fossil fuels by making it more expensive for pipeline owners to operate, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa.
“Anything that actually requires them to own up to the true costs of their dirty operations is important,” Castor said.
The legislation would not directly affect federal waters off Florida’s gulf coast because, 15 years ago, Congress banned the leasing of federal waters in the gulf’s eastern region through next year. Last year, President Donald Trump extended that ban until 2032 through an executive order.
Florida voters in 2018 permanently banned oil drilling in state waters, which extend 9 miles from the state’s shoreline in the gulf.
Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster of Clermont, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, opposes oil drilling off Florida’s gulf coast. But he voted against sending the bills to the House floor because they won’t directly affect Florida due to the current moratorium, spokesperson Jaryn Emhof said in an email.
Environmental advocates say the state still must be protected against oil spills caused by drilling in other regions of the Gulf of Mexico.
“When there’s an oil spill off of Louisiana, that oil is still going to end up on Florida beaches,” said Valerie Cleland, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit. “Oil doesn’t care what state you’re a part of.”
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which released millions of barrels of oil into the gulf, tourism in coastal communities plummeted, said Robin Miller, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
Miller said the oil spill caused the largest number of business closures she’s seen in her 15 years with the organization.
Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota co-sponsored the bill that would strengthen the requirement for drilling operators to report equipment failures, his office said in an email. He supports a permanent drilling moratorium to protect Florida’s coastal communities, which depend on a clean and healthy ocean, his office said.
Steve Murawski, a professor at the University of South Florida, said the federal government has done little to investigate how offshore drilling is degrading Florida’s coastal ecosystem.
“For the magnitude of this industry and its potential for environmental catastrophe, which we’ve seen, the current level of (government) accountability is not up to the job,” said Murawski, who studies population dynamics and marine ecosystem analysis within the College of Marine Science.
Florida legislators from both parties have been attempting to pass a permanent ban on offshore drilling in the eastern gulf so that the state is protected regardless of who is in the White House, Castor said. These bills are another attempt to protect the state’s environmental resources and combat climate change, she added, but pushback from oil and gas companies has made it hard to pass federal legislation.
Justin Williams, vice president of communications at the National Ocean Industries Association — which advocates for the offshore oil and gas industries — said the proposed bills would interrupt current safety operations at drilling sites by imposing burdensome regulations that don’t consider the structural, geological and other differences between different locations. Reporting requirements would rush investigations into equipment failures, Williams said.
The legislation is “duplicative” of existing frameworks and creates “redundant regulation complexity,” a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute said in an email.
Without regulations, though, Miller of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce said, area residents and businesses are at risk of an oil spill.
“If we don’t continue to advocate that this is not good for the environment, marine life and then the potential impacts of catastrophe on businesses, we will slowly keep losing sight of what Deepwater did,” Miller said. “That horrific situation has not stopped just because we don’t see fire and oil oozing out right now.”