Ten years ago, President Barack Obama showed up in Pensacola to walk the beaches, address a crowd at the Naval Air Station, and thank military personnel who helped respond to the Deepwater BP Oil Spill.
The oil started spewing on April 20, and by June, sticky deposits washed up black against the powdered sugar sands of Panhandle beaches. It was a mess.
Besides the environmental damage, which was enormous and still being studied, it was bad news for the Gulf fishing industry and North Florida tourism. Days of television news reports showing people in rubber gloves and protective gear cleaning goop off the sand did not exactly broadcast the message “come to Florida.”
Even before the oil hit Panhandle beaches, The Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau was working on getting the word out that any oil on Volusia County’s beaches dripped from cars and sunscreen lotion bottles, not offshore oil rigs.
A lot of tourists have a shaky grasp of Florida geography, so an informational campaign was needed to let them know that the Gulf of Mexico is over there to the left and the Atlantic Ocean is over here on the right. Gov. Charlie Crist huddled with officials from Visit Florida and talked about a major ad campaign to emphasize that most state beaches still looked just fine and everything was mostly open.
President Obama even came back in August for a working vacation in Panama City, where he was pictured swimming in the water and walking in the sand that didn’t appear at all toxic. Message: Come on in, the water’s fine.
Despite a lot of concern, the summer tourism season in Volusia and Flagler that year turned out to be pretty good. Although some tourists were avoiding Florida altogether, many other beachgoers, who might have otherwise visited Panhandle or Gulf beaches, came here.
And statewide in Florida, the worst long-term fears about the spill did not materialize. Sure, stray tar balls still pop up from time to time after being stirred up from the ocean bottom by storms, but people did return to Panhandle beaches and Spring Break 2011 broke out in Panama City as planned.
By 2018, political memory faded enough that former Lt. Governor and oil industry advocate Jeff Kottkamp was able to declare that Deepwater Horizon oil “didn’t even reach the shores of Florida” without fear of being laughed at. He later walked back this attempt at alternative facts and amended his argument to OK, not that much oil.
Still, 10 years is a long time, so it’s no surprise to read that the Trump administration is developing plans to allow new oil and gas drilling off the Florida coast. Details to come after the election. Natch.
Florida’s political memory may get hazy after a decade, but there are still a lot of Floridians who can remember the spill. Enough so that when a state constitutional amendment barring offshore oil drilling went to voters in 2018 (somehow bundled with an anti-vaping amendment), it passed easily with 69% of the vote. This amendment, however, only applies to Florida waters, and Florida waters extend only 9 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
Shortly before the oil spill, the bipartisan consensus opposing drilling off the coast of Florida had fallen apart. Remember those days in summer 2008 when gas prices hit $4 a gallon? Back when Republicans were chanting, “drill, baby, drill”? So long ago.
But the Deepwater Horizon oil spill slammed the brakes on that kind of talk in Florida. We had a glimpse of what even a distant spill could do to a tourist season and nobody wanted to risk that.
The reaction to the new oil drilling plans has been swift and refreshingly bipartisan. Sen. Rick Scott, who favored offshore drilling in pre-Deepwater Horizon days but changed his mind, joined with Sen. Marco Rubio to call for extending the current moratorium on offshore drilling by another 10 years.
If enough people can keep remembering the Deepwater Horizon spill, maybe Florida beaches can stay oil-free for a while longer.