At biofuel summit, Bronson says oil drilling is needed

By Keith Laing

ORLANDO — Drilling for old-fashioned oil in near shore Florida waters should be part of the nation’s energy diet, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson said today at a conference about increasing the use of newer fuel types.

After speaking at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ fourth annual “Farm to Fuel” summit in Orlando, Bronson told the News Service of Florida that the state and the nation need to be energy self-sufficient and there would not be enough biofuels to sustain the state fully. Bronson said biofuel, which most experts agree is the most available clean energy type in Florida, could probably only could cover about 30 percent of the need.

With that in mind, Bronson, a champion of biofuel, said that he was also in favor of underwater offshore drilling, which he said was safer than above-ground oil rigs.

“We need to be 100 percent energy sufficient in this country and the only way to do that is to do both,” Bronson said in an interview after his speech. “There is technology that says we can do it safely.”

The pitch at the “Farm to Fuel” summit this week is mostly that biofuel will wean the country’s dependence on foreign oil. But Bronson said drilling off the Gulf Coast, which surfaced during the most recent Florida legislative session and is also being debated in Congress, would help Florida do that. And including drilling in an “all of the above” energy policy would also help the state control gas prices, he added.

“Facts are facts,” Bronson said. “The high cost of fuel is what’s got agriculture and all types of industries in trouble now. Every single phase of agriculture is fuel-based, whether it’s planting the seed, picking the product or taking it to the marketplace. All of those costs have gone up tremendously. They’re almost three or four times as expensive as they were 10 years ago.”

Though a biofuel summit may seem like an odd backdrop for discussing looking for oil off the Florida coastline, Bronson said that his support for drilling was in completely in line with the reason his department starting hosting the conference four years ago: to secure the state’s energy future.

“At every single one of these, business deals have been cut,” he said. “It’s happening. Florida is going to be a leader in the nation (in renewable energy from farms) when it’s all said and done. It’s either do it now or pay a heck of a lot for it later.”

But a Democratic candidate to replace Bronson next year when he’s term-limited said Bronson’s position was a betrayal of those who are seeking more use of biofuels as an environmentally friendlier alternative to oil. Eric Draper, who is also deputy director of Audubon Florida, said safe drilling was an oxymoron.

“There’s no such thing as safe underwater oil drilling,” Draper told the News Service of Florida in a separate interview at the “Farm to Fuel” summit. “The so-called ‘safe-technologies’ have not been tested in Florida waters and they certainly have not been tested in Florida hurricanes.”

Draper’s indignation at Bronson’s decision to come out in favor of drilling appeared to be partly fueled by his decision to use the “Farm to Fuel” summit to make it public.

“I think Charlie Bronson is betraying the people who came here this week and paid $350 (to register for the convention) to promote biofuel,” Draper said. “Biofuels compete for market share with cheap oil. As long as we keep dependent on cheap oil, we’re not going to develop the biofuel market.”

Bronson’s support for more oil drilling in addition to greater investment in biofuel technology found a more receptive audience in Gov. Charlie Crist, who is nationally regarded as one of most sensitive Republican leaders to climate and energy issues.

“My feeling has always been that if it is far enough, clean enough and safe enough, we have to be open-minded about it,” Crist told reporters after his own speech to the “Farm to Fuel” summit. “We’re so dependent on foreign oil that it is compromising our security. If we can do it safely where Florida can benefit, I think it’s something we need to look at.”