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With deadline looming, environmental groups push Florida to oppose expanding Gulf drilling

 The Inflation Reduction Act has set a March deadline for a lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico that would open up new territory to drilling.
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
The Inflation Reduction Act has set a March deadline for a lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico that would open up new territory to drilling.

To win support from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin for its climate-fighting Inflation Reduction Act earlier this year, the White House included a perk for the oil and gas industry: expanded new drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now environmental groups in Florida want Gov. Ron DeSantis to fight to kill the deal. The deadline for states to submit comments is later this month.

“Governors have a unique role in influencing policy at federal agency level. They're really strong, highly regarded stakeholders,” said Hunter Miller, the senior Florida field representative for the ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana. “So that's where we need Governor DeSantis to really step up.”

In a letter to state environmental regulators, Oceana and more than a dozen other groups urged Florida to tell the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management not to open up any new territory to lease sales — and finish a five-year plan that sticks with existing leases.

“Our state’s way of life depends utterly upon clean beaches and waters, iconic wildlife, and scenic viewsheds — all of which would be compromised by the expansion of offshore drilling and increased spill risk,” said the letter signed by 1000 Friends of Florida, Florida Conservation Voters, the Sanibel-Captiva Foundation and others. “We felt this truth most acutely during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and its aftermath.”

When the BP’s Macondo well exploded 50 miles from the Louisiana coast, it killed 11 people and spewed more than 3 million barrels of oil across 1,300 square miles for three months. Scientists estimate that between 2 and 5 trillion fish and 700,000 birds were killed, along with dolphins, sea turtles and other wildlife.

Lasting impacts included sick dolphins with lung lesions and reproductive problems that later reduced the Gulf population by half. In September, University of Miami Rosenstiel researchers reported that wild mahi mahi exposed to nonlethal levels of BP oil had their survival rates cut in half within a week.

Immediately after the spill, oil production in the Gulf dropped. But in recent years, it has rebounded, now ranking as the U.S.’s primary source and producing about 97 percent of all domestic oil and gas.

Until the stalemate over the inflation act, the Biden administration had backed away from offshore drilling. In May, Department of Interior officials told the Washington Post that it was not planning to hold the lease sales this year and with no objection from oil companies.

Now under the inflation act, the Gulf sales must be held by March and would expand drilling territory even while much of the area already leased is not drilled, Miller said.

“There are many, many unused leases,” he said. “So it's unneeded, especially at a time when we're trying to meet critical climate goals as a country."

Florida officials did not respond to requests for comment by deadline Friday.

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Jenny Staletovich