By Dave Rauschkolb | Photography by Jessie Shepard
I was asked to write this article before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster occurred. I was going to entitle it “Why This Matters,” referring to the devastation that would impact our coastal economy and environment in the event of a major oil spill along the Gulf Coast. I felt compelled to reflect passionately on what could be lost in the event of a major oil spill. Sadly, my worst fears and predictions came true on April 21, 2010.
On April 27, 2009, on the last day of the legislative session, Rep. Dean Cannon (R) of Winter Park cosponsored a bill that passed along party lines in the Florida House of Representatives. There was no companion bill in the Florida Senate, but the die was cast, creating one of the most controversial pieces of proposed legislation in Florida’s history.
The first time I heard about House Bill 1219, I was knocked back on my heels. My good friend David Pleat told me about the bill that proposed lifting Florida’s ban on oil drilling as close as three to ten miles off our coastline. David, a local attorney, had a clear understanding of every nuance of the bill. According to him, it basically gave the oil industry permission to do whatever it wants while exploring for oil off our coast, including placing a maze of pipelines anywhere it likes. All I could do was shake my head, thinking our beloved home would be altered forever if this were allowed to happen.
Nearly two months later, David announced he was going to run for the District 7 seat in the Florida House of Representatives and that a big part of his platform would be directed at stopping the drilling initiative. I immediately offered my restaurant as the place to kick off his campaign. At the October 1 event, David gave an impassioned, informative speech describing what was being proposed in the bill. I had been in conversation with some of David’s supporters, and we began talking about oil. I told them, “We need to draw a line in the sand and stand firm against it.”
As David finished his speech, he suggested that we contact our legislators if we wanted to be proactive in stopping the bill. I said to myself, “There must be something more we can do.” The words “draw a line in the sand” kept bouncing through my head as he finished the speech. In an instant, I looked at my wife, Carol, and said, “I know what we can do!” What simpler yet more effective message could we send our legislators than an actual line drawn in the sand, made up of Florida’s citizens? In that moment, Hands Across The Sand was born. Four and a half months later, with the help of thousands of very special people, we created the largest oil drilling protest in our state’s history.
On February 13, thousands joined hands on Florida’s beaches, creating lines in the sand against oil drilling in Florida’s waters. It was a mix of Floridians of varying political affiliations. We had business groups and environmentalists, soccer moms and students, farmers and doctors. Every Chamber of Commerce from Pensacola to Panama City passed resolutions against oil drilling and joined hands with us.
The legislative sponsors of the bill to lift Florida’s drilling ban dropped their efforts in the 2010 legislative session. It was a victory for our citizens, yet I still felt a measure of desperation in my gut. I should have been happy because I basically got what I had hoped for—no passage of the bill and a major postponement until next year. Hands Across The Sand had been successful in raising awareness among Floridians and played a major role in changing the game. I was pleased but uneasy. I was uneasy because I knew the battle was only postponed; there were still powerful forces determined to open up Florida’s waters to oil drilling.
I was troubled because it was likely that the bill would eventually pass in Florida, considering that every representative in Northwest Florida had voted in favor of House Bill 1219. Representatives Ray Sansom (R), Marti Coley (R), Jimmy Patronis (R), and Dave Murzin (R) all voted for the bill. To this day, Senator Don Gaetz (R) has not taken a clear stance against oil drilling. He has always given a “qualified” answer to the question, saying that he “won’t vote for a bill that would affect the military.” Even after Eglin’s base commander, Colonel Bruce McClintock, admitted that the bill would adversely affect the military, Gaetz responded, saying that he was still not convinced. Durell Peaden (R), our inland senator from Crestview, has always maintained a position against drilling off Florida’s coast and seems to be our lone coastal protector in Northwest Florida. I believe that Gaetz, as our coastal senator, and all of our House representatives should have come out strongly against oil drilling as protectors of our beloved Gulf Coast from the beginning. In my opinion, this really should be a no-brainer for any and all of them. I shake my head every day in disbelief.
Then came the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It’s a shame the predictions of this type of accident fell on the deaf ears of Florida’s legislators. We had been telling them for months of our serious concerns regarding drilling off Florida’s coast.
Even now that oil is fouling our precious Gulf of Mexico, Dean Cannon is against Governor Crist’s effort to call a special session to approve a ballot measure this November placing a permanent ban on drilling off Florida in the state’s constitution. Cannon said “preparing for, and preventing, oil damage is more important than constitutionally banning something that is already against Florida law.” It appears to me that Cannon is fearful the issue would be taken out of the politicians’ hands in the event Floridians get the opportunity to decide once and for all on the November 2010 ballot.
Before the disaster, my morning ritual was checking the weather and having a look at the marine forecast to see what the day’s surf conditions might be. Now, the first thing I do is check the daily oil trajectory forecast to see if or when crude oil might be washing onto our beaches, endangering our marine wildlife, fouling our coastline, and affecting our ability to make a living. I am only one person among thousands on the Gulf Coast who never imagined that their livelihoods would hang in the balance as a result of a manmade disaster. How many more accidents can we afford before the entire Gulf is a dead zone?
We need our leaders to steer our energy future into the light of clean and renewable energy sources. America should be, and could be, the world leader in expanding clean energy, and it is time to embrace energy sources that don’t destroy our environment or put entire coastal or regional economies at risk. I believe that the oil companies are feeling the pinch of competition from clean energy. That is partially why there is such a strong push for offshore drilling. I feel it is time to take bold steps away from our dependence on oil. The United States has only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. We could never drill enough to affect the price of oil nor could we become a major player in the world oil market. Our U.S. reserves are a drop in the bucket.
Our leaders should do everything in their power to protect our treasured Gulf of Mexico from the dangers of oil drilling—that is “why this matters.” Our leaders should understand the ripple effect that destroys our coastal economies when an oil “accident” happens—that is “why this matters.” Our leaders should have the courage to make the transition to clean energy now, for our children and grandchildren—they are “why this matters.”
Only time will tell what will become of our beautiful Gulf Coast as a result of this disaster. While we all hope that the spilled oil never reaches our shores, I fear we must plan for the worst. It is my greatest wish that the experts working to stop the undersea oil leak are successful and we may then begin the hard work of reclaiming our beloved Gulf Coast.
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Dave Rauschkolb is the founder of the Hands Across The Sand anti-drilling movement and the owner/operator of Bud & Alley’s Restaurant in Seaside.
On June 26, 2010, a national Hands Across The Sand event will take place on the beaches of America. Please visit http://handsacrossthesand.com for more information.