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Offshore Drilling Opponents Fight To Keep Gulf Moratorium

Opponents of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico are mobilizing to fight the most recent threat. In Northwest Florida, it’s about protecting military training in the Gulf and preventing future disasters like the like the one caused the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Standing at the water’s edge, with arms raised, about three dozen people take part in the culmination of the annual ‘Hands Across the Sand’ event Saturday on Pensacola Beach.

“I’ve been doing this drilling issue ever since the BP Oil Spill,” said Monie Russo. “I’ve been out here religiously.”

Russo lives on Pensacola Beach and has served as a Beach Ambassador for past couple of years. She says her priority is conserving our oceans and all sea life in them, from the largest to the tiniest.

“Our mammals, our dolphins, our little jelly-fish to crustaceans; and, when you have an oil spill, it will kill even little, little bitty shells that have a crustacean in it.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Monie Russo shows anti-drilling sign to beachgoer Callie Ross and other participants in Saturday's Hands Across the Sand event on Pensacola Beach.

Russo carried a sign that said “Stop Drilling” and “Rescue the Gulf” above and below pictures of an oil covered pelican and a large tar mat.

It caught the interest of Pensacola resident Callie Ross, who was enjoying the day at the beach.

“When I first moved here four years ago, when I was looking for shells, I found these clumps when I first came here and I didn’t know what they were,” said Ross. And, I asked some guy wearing like boots and stuff and I said like ‘what are you doing?’

The answer; response crew still picking up tar balls years later.

Now global, Hands Across the Sand launched two months before the 2010 oil spill, initially aimed at protesting efforts by the Florida Legislature and the US Congress to lift the ban on oil drilling off the coast of the Sunshine State.

“As we know now, a few weeks ago, the President signed an executive order directing the Department of Interior to go back and review those drilling lease plans, not only in the Atlantic, but also to look at the Gulf of Mexico.,” said Erin Handy, Florida campaign organizer for Oceana.

Oceana joined 350 Pensacola in sponsoring Saturday’s Hands Across the Sand event.

Handy says in recent years, the organization has had success in halting proposed exploration leases in the Atlantic and are now prepared to work just has hard on the Gulf Coast to say Yes to clean, renewable energy and NO to what she calls “filthy” fossil fuels.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Erin Handy, Florida campaign organizer for Oceana.

“It’s not worth the risk,” Handy declared. “The oil industry wants to drill off the coast of beautiful beaches where the number one economy is tourism. And, they expect those local economies to take all the risk and to receive absolutely none of the benefits. And, it’s a clear message. We’re saying NO to that.”

Handy points to the benefit of having the support of local officials, members of Congress, and Senator Bill Nelson.

Nelson, a Democrat from Orlando, has been at the forefront of the fight against offshore drilling, in 2006 partnering with then Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida to push passage of a federal moratorium on drilling within 125 of Florida’s Gulf Coast until 2022, in large part to protect military weapons testing and training from Eglin and other bases in the region.

“And, the letter states and I quote, “The Department of Defense cannot overstate the vital importance of maintaining this moratorium,” said Nelson as he shared the Pentagon’s latest response to the drilling issue on the Senate Floor earlier this month (May 1).

This letter was sent to Florida’s District One Cong. Matt Gaetz from Anthony M. Kurta, the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

With support from a bipartisan Congressional delegation, Nelson has filed a bill to block expansion of drilling and extend the federal ban until 2027.

“So whether it be the degradation of the environment, the messing up of our training and testing of our U.S. military and their largest testing and training range or the economic devastating loss to Florida of its tourist industry, for all those reasons we need to pass this legislation,” Nelson urged as he closed his remarks.

Locally, the City of Pensacola and Escambia County have joined more than a hundred other local governments in adopting resolutions stating their official opposition to oil and gas drilling.

Back at Pensacola Beach, residents Monica Parries and Margie Purkerson were doing their part to call attention to the issue, pointing out that there’s a lot at stake here.

“We’re one of the last places, if the last place, that has national seashores,” said Parries as Purkerson chimed in, referencing the development on other area beaches. “This is the last place in Florida that’s got this beautiful beach, that nobody can build on, that we get to drive down there with our children, park our cars, go down and see a beautiful beach."

While many are fighting to keep oil rigs off their coast and protect the state’s big dollar military, tourism and recreational industries; oil industry officials are pushing the administration to open drilling in the Gulf and elsewhere. The move, they say, could create thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new investment.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.