Environmental groups are already launching campaigns to kill part of President Obama's plan to expand off shore drilling, as local experts fear a spill could spell doom for South Florida's beaches and waters.
President Obama, who had broad support from the environmental community during his campaign while pledging to oppose expansion of off shore drilling, made an about-face on the issue in order to garner support for his broader, more progressive energy plan.
The new plan will allow drilling off Florida's gulf coast and in the Atlantic off Jacksonville and Northern Florida.
Just weeks ago, thousands of protesters held hands in Fort Lauderdale and beaches around Florida in opposition to offshore drilling in Florida, just as protesters have for generations in the Sunshine State.
University of Miami experts on ocean currents say a major oil spill on a rig in the new drill zone in the Gulf would reach the Florida Keys, Miami and Fort Lauderdale within 48 hours, with potential damage to coral reefs, fisheries, lobster, mangrove nursery habitat, sea grass beds, sand and beaches that could last decades.
"I was surprised,” said Jonathan Ullman, Miami-Dade director of the Sierra Club. “I was pretty disappointed."
Florida shores are the backbone of a tourism economy in the tens of billions featuring white beaches known around the world. There are no drilling rigs here because people and lawmakers feared oil spills would just be too high a price to pay.
But for the President, the political price was too tempting: more drilling, observers say, means Republican votes for his climate change bill.
In the 2008 campaign, with gas prices rising, John McCain backed more offshore drilling. Sarah Palin made it a slogan: "Drill, baby drill!" But candidate Barack Obama said no. "To drill off shore here in Florida and other places around the country would not provide families with any relief," he said at the time.
For the past year, President Obama has looked at how to develop wind and solar energy and nuclear power, while being sure our economy recovers.
"We are going to need to harness traditional sources of energy,” he said Wednesday at a Maryland Air Force base announcing his energy policy, “even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable homegrown energy."
Florida State Representative Dean Cannon, a Republican from Orlando, hailed the plan saying it was similar to one he proposed some time ago. “I hope it makes people who may have been reluctant to consider it, willing to consider it because it's clearly got a bipartisan support now and I think folks may have not wanted to believe that before. I think a majority of Floridians think we need to access oil and natural gas.”
The oil industry says its rigs are vastly safer these days. But Ullman disagrees, claiming there continue to be spills.
"In fact, every time we have a hurricane, there are spills," he said. "We may not see them on the news, but they're there."