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Opposition to offshore drilling weakens

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist's opposition to offshore oil drilling is getting weaker and weaker.

When Crist ran for governor in 2006, he opposed any drilling off Florida's coast. When he was campaigning with Republican presidential nominee John McCain last year, Crist became more open to the idea, but still didn't want oil rigs near the state's shoreline.

Now on Wednesday, the Republican governor said after an Earth Day celebration that he is "open minded" about a bill that could put oil rigs within a few miles of the beaches that are crucial to Florida's tourism industry.

Asked whether he would sign a House bill that would allow the governor and Cabinet to OK drilling leases in state-controlled waters within 10 miles of the coast, Crist said, "I don't know. I think we need to study it more. I think we need to learn more about it and I'm open minded to reviewing it."

And he's not alone. Two of the three Cabinet members—Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, both Republicans—also said they'll remain open minded to the idea.

Crist has built a reputation for being environmentally friendly by holding climate change summits, seeking a deal to buy U.S. Sugar property to help restore the Everglades and pushing for a law that would require electric companies to increase their use of renewable energy.

"The more diversified we can be in terms of the energy resources that we have, the stronger it makes Florida and America. And I think the experience of last summer tells you that when gas goes above $4 a barrel that people want options. And they want solar, wind, nuclear and any option that we can exercise responsibly and safely," Crist said.

The House Policy Council approved a bill (HB 1219) Tuesday that would allow the governor and Cabinet to approve drilling off the coast. Environmentalists were caught off guard because the language to change the bill wasn't filed until the night before, though it clearly had been in the works for some time.

The Associated Industries of Florida presented a slide show and glossy handouts to lawmakers. The group's president, Barney Bishop, was accompanied at Tuesday's meeting by a pollster, an economist and two powerful lawyers, including an oil industry attorney.

The fact that the issue came up so suddenly and so late in the session upset Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat and the third Cabinet member.

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"I thought we were supposed to have government in the sunshine. This is government in the middle of the night," Sink said. "We have to have open, rigorous debate, and real time to hear from Florida's citizens about this 11th hour change that could bring drilling rigs just three miles off Florida's coastline in the shallow waters of the Gulf."

Bronson said he wants to see more details about the bill, but said he is open to the idea. He said technology has advanced to make drilling safer and the country needs to use a combination of sources, including fuel from agriculture sources, to become 100 percent independent of foreign oil.

"If we can gain what we get out of the Gulf plus 30 percent of our fuel supply from renewable sources, that's going to go a long way to help us maintain an independent fuel operation here in this country," Bronson said. "Another factor I'd want to see out of this proposal is how much would Florida gain from this."

McCollum is also willing to consider the idea.

"He'll remain open-minded and would be happy to review proposals should they be brought before the Cabinet," said McCollum's spokeswoman, Sandi Copes. Hours later, she added of McCollum: "While he's open minded, he's highly skeptical of the proposed plan."

Clean energy advocates are upset by the idea.

"The number one industry in Florida is tourism and we would be likely be trading one industry for another," said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "I agree with the governor that we need more diversity, but the diversity we need is fuel efficiency, mass transit and renewable fuels."

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