TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (News Service of Florida) - Environmentalists and some lawmakers are pushing for more alternative energy as the nation marks the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
But those same alternative-energy backers fear the need to reinvigorate the economy because of the COVID-19 pandemic could ramp up efforts by President Donald Trump to expand oil drilling in federal waters around Florida.
“A really great way to create jobs for people is to actually invest in clean energy technologies of the future, which we know are cost competitive to old arcane systems of energy production,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said the focus on building a stronger economy “coming out of COVID, coming out of the BP (Deepwater Horizon) catastrophe” has to be based on clean energy.
“We know how to do this. We can be smarter,” Castor said during a webinar on Friday. “In Florida, we know when a hurricane comes through. It devastates a community. It wrecks your home. You build it back on a stronger foundation.”
Backers of alternative energy say not fully embracing sources such as solar and wind is a missed opportunity after the deadly April 20, 2010, explosion aboard the rig drilling for BP about 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast.
With hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spewed into the water in the three months after the disaster, fishing and tourism across the northern Gulf came to a halt and restaurants struggled as people were scared to eat seafood.
Oil companies, using new technologies, are now exploring in deeper waters than the Deepwater Horizon was located. Meanwhile, some regulations implemented in the aftermath have been eased as Trump has pushed to increase U.S. oil production, in part by expanding drilling in federal waters.
Christian Wagley, Florida director for Healthy Gulf, which monitors the oil industry, said COVID-19 has put a focus on supply chains and that Florida should take a similar look at how it gets its energy.
“We bring in natural gas. We bring in oil. To a lesser extent, we bring in coal,” Wagley said. “But we are the Sunshine State, we have all the sunshine we could ever need to power the economy.”
Wagley said a positive trend is that solar energy has been growing in Florida.
“The state is now second in the nation behind California for solar jobs and fifth in the amount of installed solar capacity,” Wagley said. “I used to be able to joke that New Jersey had more installed solar capacity than Florida. But we’ve rapidly caught up and passed them now.”
Moncrief said the way people and governments have reacted to the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, shows what “we can do to combat other crises.”
“The coronavirus is super-acute. It’s shutting things down. Climate change is also doing that but on a slower time scale,” Moncrief said. “One thing that I hope we learn from this crisis is that we actually can make changes very quickly when we want to and when we recognize that it will make us safer and increase our well-being.”
Castor, who represents the Tampa area, equated the nationwide situation created by the coronavirus to how it felt along the Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
“Overnight you had the blowout, 11 workers lost their lives, but all of a sudden people had lost their jobs,” Castor said. “Small business owners lost businesses and had to furlough workers. It was the worst environmental catastrophe in American history. And it was devastating. And we’re still recovering from the environmental impacts.”
A new report by the Washington, D.C.-based conservation organization Oceana estimates 60 million gallons of oil remained in the environment after removal efforts, with the spill accounting for such things as the deaths of 170,000 sea turtles and 800,000 birds.
The report also found the seafood industry lost $1 billion, the housing market across the region saw prices drop 4 percent to 8 percent for at least five years, and the recreation industry lost more than $500 million.
The Florida Legislature in recent years set up the nonprofit Triumph Gulf Coast to oversee three-quarters of the $2 billion the state will get as part of a multistate settlement with BP. Triumph Gulf Coast’s board directs money to projects in Northwest Florida.
Offshore drilling has long been a political lightning-rod issue in Florida, with many coastal businesspeople and residents opposed to it. But supporters of drilling, including the petroleum industry, say domestic energy production creates jobs and is a national security issue.
In 2018, then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke traveled to Tallahassee to announce that Florida would be exempt from Trump’s offshore drilling plans. However, Zinke’s statement was seen largely as a political favor to then-Gov. Rick Scott’s U.S. Senate campaign.
Later that year, nearly 70 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that reinforced a ban on drilling in state waters off the coastlines.