What's Behind Charlie Crist's Constitutional Drilling Ban

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>Florida Governor Charlie Crist has called a special session of the state legislature to debate a constitutional amendment that would ban drilling off the state's coasts. But since Florida has banned leasing and drilling in its waters since 1990, Crist's critics are calling foul. Marco Rubio, Crist's Republican opposition for Senate, called the special session a "political sideshow," and Larry Cretul, speaker of the Florida House, called it a "political ploy to further the future of politicians."

So what exactly would an amendment accomplish? Crist's own press secretary has acknowledged that it would differ from the current ban "simply in the fact that the constitutional amendment would be from a majority vote of Floridians." In essence, it would be a gesture, an outlet for enraged Florida residents who are watching oil drift onto their beaches despite longstanding protection of their drilling waters. The amendment would also further entrench the current ban, making it much harder for legislators to overturn.

After the Exxon Valdez spill, the Florida House and Senate passed two statutes: one to ban leasing off the state's shores, and another to ban drilling. The ban extends from three to 10 miles, depending on the region. A few years ago, the state purchased pre-existing leases. The federal government also bans drilling in federal waters off the eastern Gulf of Mexico, so the restrictions are fairly airtight.

In the past few years, though, as gas prices rose and the public became more amenable to offshore drilling, the Florida legislature began to think about overturning the ban. The House passed a bill that would have lifted the ban, but the Senate knocked it down. A special council was convened to look into the pros and cons of drilling. When the BP oil well punctured, however, these efforts were put on hold. Speaker Cretul has been careful to note that the legislature is no longer considering reversing the ban.

John Dowless, president of Florida's Millennium Consulting firm, thinks the amendment would put state legislators in a tough spot. "I guarantee you when gas climbs back up to $5 a gallon, they're going to say 'Drill here, drill now,'" Dowless says. "But I think it would be a little difficult for them politically to vote against the amendment right now."

Once the special session is convened on July 20, legislators will have to go through an expedited version of the conventional political process: draft the amendment in committee, pass it to the floor, and obtain a 3/5 vote of both houses in order to put it on the ballot in November. From there, the amendment would need to be approved by at least 60 percent of voters.

Dowless thinks that legislators will not pass it through committee in order to avoid the optics of voting against a crackdown on big oil during a big oil spill. For Crist, though, the optics are the primary draw. While he's not raging ahead of Rubio in the polls, the oil spill has so far worked to his advantage. He's received constant media exposure and has had the opportunity to cast himself as a leader in crisis. 

His call for an amendment, according to Dowless, is "absolutely, 100 percent political. It's about getting poliitical headlines, it's about political posturing, it's about winning political votes." Noting Crist's vacillating stance on drilling, Dowless surmises that if Crist were not running for Senate, he would probably not be calling for the amendment. 

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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