Dollars and Oil Sense

Sean Cosgrove

As the BP oil spill heads east the US Coast Guard, BP and the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection are planning a coordinated response in the event that oil reaches the western coast of Florida, reports Offshore Magazine, a publication dedicated to issues related to the offshore oil drilling industry. (The ability to plan is certainly a good thing because, as we all know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.) Late yesterday NOAA predicted that impacts will not reach the western coast of FL for at least 72 hours at current rates. However, the reports are coming in of the oil slick now moving within a few miles of the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.

Preparing for a catastrophic oil spill on Florida’s famously white sand beaches reminds me of a House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee hearing in early 2009 where one rather certain freshman Louisiana Congressman gave a stern lecture to the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Convention and Visitor’s Center about the fallacy of not embracing oil drilling a few miles from the Florida coast. D.T. Minich was testifying that the tourism industry drives in $300 million dollars in tax revenue to Pinellas County, Florida alone and tourism delivers $7 billion a year to just that portion of the state. Why would they risk a truly sustainable golden goose? Yet, the point was lost on the oily faithful.

The insistent reliance that Big Oil and their Congressional cheerleaders place on the worth of oil receipts seems to carry a different kind of value, almost a higher moral value than an equal dollar generated by tourism, recreation or the ecological services that are the basis for commercial and recreational fishing. Is it possible that the real value of an oil buck might carry a little more if it boosts an electoral campaign rather than just pay some short order cook’s light bill? Where does all that Big Oil money go? The Washington Post reports this morning that British Petroleum has already “mobilized a massive Washington lobbying campaign” and that BP has spent $20 million on Washington lobbying since that February 2009 hearing where Rep. Freshman tried to proselytize the Florida tourist industry. We know that Congressional campaigns get more expensive each cycle and there are always open checkbooks willing to help finance them, but somehow there is still a well dressed emperor strutting down New Orleans’ Canal Street who has no shame about defending an industry that puts ocean wildlife, coastal workers and their communities, and the health of the planet at grave risk.

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