Offshore drilling for petroleum and natural gas has long been banned off of Florida's coast and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, due to concerns of oil spills and other risks to the state's large tourism industry.
As interpreted by the federal courts, the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution gives the federal government certain regulatory power over "navigable waters" of the United States. The Submerged Lands Act of 1953 and Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953, along with the 1960 Supreme Court decision in United States v. States of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, divided ownership of the tidelands of the United States between state and federal governments. States own the sea and seabed out to 3.5 miles, except Texas and Florida which own out to 10.5 miles. The federal government owns the remainder of the territorial waters.
The January 1969 blowout on a Unocal rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California brought an 800-square-mile, 3-million-gallon slick of oil to the Pacific coast. An enormous number of birds, seals, dolphins, fish and other wildlife were killed in the spill, sparking a national outcry and leading to a 1981 moratorium on new drilling leases in the Outer Continental Shelf.
Attempts to expand drilling
In 1997 a 5.9-million-acre tract in the Gulf of Mexico known as Lease Sale 181 Area was first proposed for oil and gas leases, with leasing to being in December 2001. The tract crosses between the Alabama-Florida border, and a "stovepipe"-shaped area comes within 16 miles of Baldwin County and Perdido Key. After George W. Bush took office as president in 2001, his brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, negotiated an agreement to lease only 1.5 million acres — all west of the Florida border and no closer than 100 miles from the Florida coast.
In 2002 Governor Bush and Florida lawmakers worked to buy back leases in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to protect them from new exploration, with the understanding that the U.S. Interior Department would not allow drilling within a buffer of 100 miles from Florida's coast until at least 2021.
In 2003, a proposed federal energy bill contained a provision to conduct an inventory of oil and gas deposits along the Outer Continental Shelf — language widely perceived as a "back-door approach" to approving drilling in Florida waters. Congressman Jeff Miller successfully removed the language from the House version of the bill, but a proposed amendment by Democratic Senator Bob Graham to remove it from the Senate version was blocked by the Republican majority. The 2003 energy bill ultimately died from a filibuster.
The Bush Interior Department inquired again into the prospect of drilling in 2005, and the House proposed a bill that would have allowed individual states to opt out of the federal drilling ban within 100 miles of shore in exchange for revenue sharing opportunities. This prompted strong opposition from Senator Bill Nelson and other Florida lawmakers.
A compromise supported by many in Congress, including Northwest Florida's Jeff Miller, would have opened an additional 2.4 million acres of the 181 Area in Florida waters while leaving 2 million acres protected. This plan was opposed by other Florida lawmakers and shelved.
The Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (GOMESA) included provisions that:
- required 8.3 million acres of the Gulf opened for lease, including 5.8 million acres previously protected by Congressional moratoria;
- declared much of the Gulf of Mexico Eastern Planning Area off-limits to oil and gas leasing until 2022, and offering incentives for leaseholders to abandon existing leases within moratorium areas; and
- banned oil and gas leasing within 125 miles of the Florida coastline within the Gulf's Eastern Planning Area, or east of the Military Mission Line.
Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2010
On April 20, 2010, an explosion took place on the offshore rig Deepwater Horizon. The rig sank two days later on April 22 — ironically the fortieth annual observance of Earth Day, a holiday created in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
In the aftermath of the spill, many state and national politicians reversed their efforts to expand offshore drilling.
- "Offshore drilling is an ongoing battle." Pensacola News Journal, June 16, 2003.
- "Guarding against offshore drilling is a nonstop task." Pensacola News Journal, April 15, 2003.
- "Don't hurt military training by drilling near the Panhandle." Pensacola News Journal, June 13, 2005.
- "Offshore drilling victory doesn't end ongoing battle." Pensacola News Journal, November 13, 2005.