Barney T. Bishop III is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, known as “The Voice of Florida Business Since 1920” and can be reached at bbishop@aif.com. Associated Industries of Florida is an affiliate member of Consumer Energy Alliance-Florida. This Op-Ed ran in several Florida papers during July 2009.

As Sen. Bill Nelson toured Florida threatening his filibuster to stop a federal energy bill, he regretfully demagogued on the “evils” of domestic oil and gas exploration off Florida’s coasts and predicted the demise of our state’s tourism industry and military bases should this occur. Scare tactics and outrageous claims will not fix our nation’s energy crisis. Instead, meaningful debate on the issue must take place in Congress. Sen. Nelson’s unwavering resistance to exploring options for an American energy future without dependence on foreign oil is stubborn at best, but ultimately irrational since a majority of Floridians support offshore drilling.

This federal energy bill would allow exploration for oil off Florida’s coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, home of the largest American Air Force bases in the world. Our national security is of the utmost importance and military testing operations in the Gulf will take precedence over other activities, but there is no need to make it mutually exclusive of efforts to increase domestic fuel supplies. Through collaboration and coordination, the two can work hand-in-hand and work well.  As one of the largest consumers of petroleum products, it is in the U.S. military’s best overall interest to have increased access to domestic supplies of oil.

Sen. Nelson’s emotional rhetoric on the devastation oil exploration would have on our state and vowing to “grind the Senate to a halt if I have to” only hurts Florida’s economy. By blocking this bill and not focusing on the need for revenue sharing, Florida will once again miss out on the millions of dollars other Gulf States receive from revenue sharing agreements resulting from oil and natural gas production off their shores.

Claims that revenue from energy production could not be spent on other state-supported programs, such as education and environmental protection, are misleading. In fact, the federal interpretation of revenue sharing is very broad and other issues CAN be funded by revenue generated through oil exploration off our coasts. Instead of condemning the funds that could be created, Sen. Nelson should work to expand revenue sharing possibilities. Furthermore, even if the federal funds could only be used in selected areas of our state budget, that federal money would undoubtedly free-up money in Florida’s coffers to be redirected to other areas including education, infrastructure and health and human services.

Our state needs oil and natural gas to maintain our way of life, and natural gas production is already underway today in the Gulf of Mexico south of the Florida Panhandle coast. Sen. Nelson should listen to his constituents and consider pragmatic solutions to America’s energy crisis rather than throwing himself in the way of progress.

There is great opportunity here in Florida – for our state and our nation.  Let’s not be swayed by Sen. Nelson’s tired old tune.  Let’s not squander a chance to boost our state’s economy and, at the same time, move our nation toward energy independence.