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Date of Issue: June 25, 2008

Energy plans worry locals

Calls last week from George Bush and John McCain to ease limits on offshore oil drilling fueled local worries for coastal protection already fanned by a proposed offshore natural gas port and pipeline.

Citizens expressed concern for the area’s natural beauty as they walked the beaches last Wednesday.

Local officials expressed concern for a free-for-all fight over natural resources as they gathered June 18 on Longboat Key for a monthly meeting of the Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials and June 19 for a special meeting of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners.

And U.S. and state lawmakers issued statements of concern about the economic and environmental hazards of oil and gas exploration off the coast.

Offshore gas port, pipeline

The most pressing issue for local officials last week was a push to alter the course of a natural gas port and pipeline proposed by Port Dolphin Energy, which apparently achieved some success. Port Dolphin spokesman Harold Costello announced June 19 that the company was changing its proposed route. (See separate story below.)

Port Dolphin wants to build and operate a port in the Gulf of Mexico about 28 miles west of Anna Maria Island. There, tankers would arrive with liquid natural gas to be vaporized and piped through a line running on the bottom of the gulf to Tampa Bay to a landside connection four miles east of Port Manatee.

With the U.S. Coast Guard’s publication of an environmental-impact statement earlier this year, local officials learned that the planned pipeline would make off-limits some of the finest sand available for beach renourishment projects on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key.

Environmental groups and Island residents also raised concerns about the impact of the port and pipeline on marine habitat.

On June 18, members of the Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials met at Longboat Key Town Hall to discuss the pipeline project.

“It’s out our front door,” said Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford.

The local officials were chiefly concerned with protecting sand near the pipeline route that is needed for renourishment projects. In May, Island officials joined with Manatee County in challenging the pipeline route in a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The county had suggested several alternatives to Port Dolphin, including tapping into an existing pipeline, running a pipeline parallel to an existing line or altering the course of the proposed route to avoid the offshore renourishment sand area.

On June 19, Island officials assembled at Port Manatee for a special meeting of the county commission that included a presentation from Port Dolphin representatives.

During the meeting, Costello said the pipeline route would be altered: “We've heard the community loud and clear and Port Dolphin will relocate the pipeline route away from the sand source area.”

Vigilance, however, is needed, said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county’s conservation lands management department.

“There’s no opportunity to step down even a little bit on this issue,” he said.

While negotiations continue with Port Dolphin, Hunsicker warned that more projects will be proposed for the area.

“This is going to come into southwest Florida and Tampa,” he said. “There will be more pipeline routes. If not this year, then next.”

“We’ve got to circle the wagons,” Hunsicker said.

“This is a big thing,” said Bradenton Beach Vice Mayor John Chappie. “We need to stay on message. This is our livelihood.”

Bradenton Beach City Commissioner Janie Robertson wondered, “How many potential companies can come in here and do this?”

“Every company is going to want its own rail line in,” Hunsicker predicted.

Offshore oil exploration, drilling

As locals dealt with the natural gas project last week, they also learned that Gov. Charlie Crist now supports lifting a federal moratorium providing that states could decide where to allow offshore drilling.

Crist’s announcement followed a speech by U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, who announced he supports an end to a ban on offshore drilling. McCain delivered his remarks before oil executives in Houston.

McCain, according to a transcript provided by his campaign, said, “Oil and gasoline are the most vital of all commodities in a modern economy. Their price affects the cost of things even more basic and essential. America's dependence on foreign oil is a matter of large and far-reaching consequences - none of them good.

“Whoever controls oil controls much more than oil. And in our time, much of the world's oil supply is controlled by states, regimes, and a cartel for which America's well being is not exactly a priority.”

McCain said his energy plan promoted U.S. domestic fuel production. “We do have resources, and we do have a choice. In oil, gas and coal deposits, we have enormous energy reserves of our own,” he said. “And we are gaining the means to use these resources in cleaner, more responsible ways. As for offshore drilling, it’s safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston. Yet for reasons that become less convincing with every rise in the price of foreign oil, the federal government discourages offshore production.”

Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who criticized McCain for flip-flopping, maintained that offshore drilling would not lead to reduced fuel prices.

Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, as well as North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley and John Corzine, also challenged McCain’s position.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in a conference call with reporters, said McCain lacked vision and displayed “a coziness with oil companies and the Wall Street investment banks that are fueling this run-up on prices.”

Some McCain supporters also stood opposed to offshore drilling on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“Gas prices are outrageous. I agree with Sen. McCain that we need to increase domestic supplies as part of a balanced energy policy,” U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan said in a statement. “However, I remain opposed to expanded drilling off Florida’s west coast.”

McCain’s most prominent support came from the White House, where President George W. Bush asked Congress to end a ban on offshore oil drilling and endorse a plan to work with states to identify locations for drilling.

The president has long advocated drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and signed a 2006 bill to expand oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

The first President Bush signed a 1990 executive order banning coastal oil exploration and, as Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush opposed offshore drilling.

With the renewed support for offshore drilling coming from the governor’s office, the White House and McCain’s campaign, local and national environmental groups organized in opposition.

“The federal moratorium exists because one state could jeopardize beaches in neighboring states with risky offshore drilling,” said Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, which has been active locally on offshore drilling and red tide issues. “An oil spill off the coast of Virginia would impact beaches, marine life and tourism in New Jersey. More importantly, lifting the ban would do nothing to reduce gas prices for the average American family. It would take a decade to bring new leases into production and then they would only line the coffers of the oil industry, which raked in tens of billions of dollars in record profits last year.”