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After court ruling, Florida proposal to ban offshore drilling back on ballot

Offshore drilling in the state has been hugely controversial.

Gulf of Mexico , Louisiana, An Aerial survey of the site around the Macondo well, the source of the BP oil spill, reveals a new drilling platform near oil sheen that has been traced back to the well. CREDIT: Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images
Gulf of Mexico , Louisiana, An Aerial survey of the site around the Macondo well, the source of the BP oil spill, reveals a new drilling platform near oil sheen that has been traced back to the well. CREDIT: Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images

A proposed Florida constitutional amendment that would ban offshore drilling is back on the ballot following a legal scuffle that saw the initiative challenged in court.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Amendment 9 can appear on the ballot before voters in November. That proposal, which would prohibit oil and gas drilling on land beneath specified state waters, has been hailed by green groups in a midterm election cycle that has largely centered environmental issues.

But it’s unclear where most candidates — Democrat or Republican — stand on Amendment 9, despite widespread bipartisan concern and opposition to offshore drilling.

Amendment 9 was originally proposed as a bundled ballot initiative, grouped with another proposal banning vaping in enclosed indoor workspaces. This combination generated opposition from retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead, who argued that Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s bundling efforts were unconstitutional.

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But the Florida Supreme Court disagreed this week, ruling that there was “no basis” to argue Detzner could not bundle the proposals together. This means if voters want to ban offshore drilling, they will also be voting to ban vaping in workspaces, and vice versa.

With Amendment 9 back on the ballot, some are celebrating. While state law already prohibits drilling off of Florida’s coast, it could add momentum to efforts fighting drilling in federal waters. It would also enshrine the rule and protect it from potential future efforts to roll back the existing ban.

“We have a very rare opportunity to protect our coastline,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), according to E&E. SACE has released a short video in support of Amendment 9, starring a dolphin named Winter who uses a prosthetic fin allowing her to swim following an accident.

Some groups, however, have noted the unusual situation presented by Amendment 9’s bundled components, but have endorsed the effort nonetheless.

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“Our concern for the environment overrides our concern about putting vaping in the Constitution,” the League of Women Voters of Florida states on the organization’s website. “We also believe that if this amendment doesn’t pass, it sends a signal to the federal government that Florida does not care about off-shore drilling.”

According to the website Vote Yes on 9, at least 35 organizations have endorsed the amendment, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Florida Policy Institute. Opponents include the Florida Petroleum Council, Associated Industries of Florida, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Offshore drilling has long been an unpopular topic in Florida, a vulnerable, low-lying state threatened by sea level rise, along with increasingly dangerous and frequent hurricanes. Climate science indicates that those events are exacerbated by climate change, which in turn is linked to fossil fuels.

That direct link, however, hasn’t prompted political opposition so much as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill has — the tragedy is still fresh on the minds of many Gulf Coast residents grappling with the ramifications.

“We don’t have to look too far back to be reminded of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the worst in U.S. history,” Jennifer Webb, a Democratic candidate for state representative in the 69th district, said, expressing support for Amendment 9. “We can’t afford to make that mistake on our shores and endanger 1.4 million tourism-related jobs — jobs that many families and business owners in House District 69 rely on.”

Offshore drilling re-emerged in August to complicate Florida’s midterm elections, as oil and gas companies renewed a push to lobby lawmakers to reconsider their stance on the issue amid efforts from the Trump administration to expand drilling.

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Candidates in Florida have largely sought to steer clear of the contentious topic, with a few exceptions. Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is challenging incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D), has touted his success in obtaining an offshore drilling waiver for Florida from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, after the agency announced last January that virtually all federal waters would be opened up to oil and gas exploration and drilling.

That exemption has generated outcry — other states, like New Jersey, have demanded similar waivers — in addition to calling attention to Scott’s own record. Heavily backed by fossil fuel interests, Scott has a rocky record on offshore drilling; he campaigned on the issue in 2010 before opposing expansion ahead of this year’s election.

Nelson’s record isn’t completely sound either. When the Obama administration floated plans to expand offshore drilling in 2010, the senator appeared far more open to the idea, to the outrage of environmental advocates. The BP disaster later derailed those proposals and Nelson has since defended his record, arguing that he would never have allowed drilling to come close to Florida’s shores.

The Nelson campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the candidate’s stance on Amendment 9 from ThinkProgress by publishing time. Efforts to contact the Scott campaign were also unsuccessful.

Other candidates across party lines have articulated their opposition to offshore drilling, including Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R), the co-founder of the bipartisan and controversial Climate Solutions Caucus. Another caucus member, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), has argued against drilling in the name of national security. Much of Florida’s congressional congregation is similarly inclined, an indicator of how sharply opposed many residents are to such efforts.

Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum (D) has supported a permanent ban on offshore drilling, although it is unclear if he has endorsed Amendment 9. Gillum’s opponent, former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R), has said he supports measures to ban oil drilling off the coast, but Democrats say he has been largely absent on the issue during his time in Congress.

Offshore drilling expansion in the eastern Gulf is technically on hold until 2022 anyways, under the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act. But candidates are likely to continue facing questions on the issue, with voters set to decide for themselves on November 6.